The University of Hong Kong has introduced a policy to its curriculum that mandates undergraduates spend time in an exchange program in mainland China as part of getting their degree. The announcement, which was announced Friday by HKU Vice President Ian Holliday was met with a flood of criticism from students and alumni.

“I don’t know if there’s a hidden political agenda behind the ... program,” Marcus Lau Yee-ching, a 19-year-old journalism student at HKU, told the South China Morning Post. “Not all students want to go to China.”

According to Holliday, the exchange program would be introduced slowly into the university through 2022, at which point the school hopes every student would be able to have a “mainland experience.”

“If you don’t want to go to mainland China, don’t come to HKU,” Holliday was quoted telling students at a dinner last week, in what was initially presented as a compulsory part of the curriculum.

After initial backlash against the plan, the University of Hong Kong’s vice chancellor and president, professor Peter Mathieson, clarified that the program was not proposed as the result of government pressure or mainland pressure and would include exchange programs in mainland China in addition to another one overseas. “We confidently believe that such opportunities will enhance the ‘whole person development’ which we aim to provide for all HKU students,” he told SCMP. “These opportunities may be anywhere in the world, but obviously in view of our geopolitical situation, mainland China will be one target area.”

“University exchanges should be voluntary, not compulsory,” Hong Konger Phil Yue, a student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote on Facebook on a post about Mathieson’s statements. “Furthermore, is there a consultation with the student bodies of HKU? Utterly unacceptable, I am proud to be in CUHK, our administration replies that they [have] no such plans for this.”

According to an HKU poll taken by the university’s campus TV station, 78 percent of students surveyed said they had no interest in participating in a mainland China exchange program.


HKU mainland exchange poll "Do you wish to go to the mainland for exchange?" ('local' implies Hong Kong natives, 'non-local' implies international students_ Photo: HKU Campus TV/ Facebook

However, some supported the idea and focused on the importance of sharing the ideas of Hong Kong students with mainland Chinese.

“That’s fair. I actually like this plan!” Samuel Chung wrote on Facebook.  “Too often are Hong Kong students too narrow-minded and not open to new ideas, new cultures and new ways.”

“It goes both ways. Help plant the seeds of democracy in China,” Wilfredo Garrido added on the post. “When in class, be outspoken, instill in the young Chinese minds the values of freedom and human rights -- and you will have done HK a great service.”

Mainland-Hong Kong animosity has been bubbling since what was arguably its peak during last fall's Occupy Central pro-democracy protests. Since then, Hong Kong natives have taken issue with the growing number of mainland tourists who reportedly disrupt the local economy.