A march at the University of Minnesota advocating for liberty and democracy in Hong Kong drew around 100 supporters and protesters in front of Coffman Union on Friday.
The march started around 3:10 p.m., with both Hong Kong and mainland Chinese students marching around campus. After the march, participants had an information session to talk about the current situation in Hong Kong and perspectives from different parties. While Hong Kong students held their session, students from mainland China shouted out slogans, like “Treasure China! No violence!” and sang China’s national anthem.
Participants chanted “Hong Kong! Stay strong!” as they marched from East Bank to West Bank and back.
The organizers of the march, who are also University students, said about 60 people attended the rally in support for Hong Kong. The march’s organizers wanted to remain anonymous for this story to protect their identities in case of potential retaliation. Protesters also wore masks at the rally for anonymity, which has been a symbol of Hong Kong’s recent social movement.
"We want to raise awareness in this community and in this neighborhood," said one of the organizers. "We wanted to relate, try to get people to think about why should they care. We want to show that there is someone all the way in Minnesota, all the way across the road, supporting people in Hong Kong for this protest," the organizers said.
In June, the movement first began in Hong Kong to stand in solidarity for the Hong Kong people against oppression of democracy and human rights.
“It’s stupid,” said Bary Shi, a nutrition freshman from mainland China. “Hong Kong is always a part of China. So, it is meaningless to do a march like this because it is not going to change anything.”
The University of Minnesota Police Department was also at the march for security.
“The Hong Kong students did come in and have a meeting with us,” said Troy Buhta, a lieutenant with UMPD. "This was like any other protest rally that we have here on campus. We always provide security for them ... So we're just here to stand by and make sure everything is safe for everybody.”
Organizers said they believe half of the counter-protesters, many of whom were students from mainland China, were respectful of them.
"Counter-protesters do value what we fight for, and they are just there to voice their own opinion. So we're totally fine with that," they said.
Some organizers, however, also said the other half of the counter-protesters had a limited understanding of the purpose of the march.
"They keep shouting 'One China! One China!' which is really not part of the discussion because we've never argued for the independence of Hong Kong. It's just not an issue at all," one of the organizers said.
University psychology student Harlequin Mao, a student from mainland China, said the counter-protest was a personal reaction and she hopes to dispel the misunderstanding toward people from mainland China.
“I really hope that we can raise awareness that not all Chinese are brainwashed,” Mao said. “It seems to me like on the internet, if you are Chinese, you are wrong, you are from China, you work for the government, which is not the truth ... I am not going to say there is a discrimination to Chinese people. But like, I am afraid. I am really scared.”
Students from mainland China said that media coverage from mainland China and Hong Kong are often different, making it hard to know what is really happening.
“There is a difference of information we get. A lot of Western media videos say that policemen are actually beating those protesters,” said statistic senior Dante Liu. “But before those so-called violence, they started the violence first at least according to our mainland media. It is really hard to tell what the truth is.”
University student Tenzin Choesang, who is Tibetan-American, held a Tibetan flag during the protest. Choesang said he understands what is happening in Hong Kong and wants to show solidarity with the Hong Kong student protest.
“In Tibet, you know, there is a lack of human rights, no religious freedom, no freedom of speech,” Choesang said. “I just want to make sure that the voices of [the] Tibetans [who] were silenced under the communist China are heard wherever it is in the world.”
A week ahead of the protest, tension had already escalated between the two groups. A group chat of roughly 200 people was created to discuss and prepare for the counter-protest. Many students from mainland China said they heard about the march from group chats and official accounts.
Both the Chinese Students and Scholars Association and the Chinese Student Union declined to comment on the protest.
The protest also drew many people who were not students.
“I am so proud of the Hong Kong students because even though mainland Chinese are threatening and intimidating, I feel like Hong Kong is holding their own and carrying on in a peaceful non-violent way,” said Mary Voight, a retired teacher who used to study at the University of Hong Kong, while holding a British flag amid the crowd. “They came here to share their message to inform people in Minneapolis what is going on.”
After the March, organizers and a couple of students from mainland China met to discuss their political views.
“[They are] constructive conversations, which is good because that is actually what we want. That is the exchange of values and different views,” they said.
They talked for an hour and said they believe it is a good stepping stone for more peaceful conversations.
“We are not advocating for violence or undermining your democracy or freedom. It's just a good way to express our own opinions,” the organizers said.