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Protester Faces Uphill Battle to Promote Hong Kong Awareness

Alex Lee protests in Washington, D.C., in this undated photo in hopes of inspiring more people in China to be pro-democracy advocates. (Photo courtesy of Alex Lee)
Alex Lee protests in Washington, D.C., in this undated photo in hopes of inspiring more people in China to be pro-democracy advocates. (Photo courtesy of Alex Lee)

Alex Lee has embarked on a cross-country bike trip — beginning in Los Angeles, California, and headed to Boston, Massachusetts — in hopes of inspiring the next generation of pro-democracy advocates in China.

He is spreading his message in the U.S., Lee noted, because the free press is likely to report on his journey, and there are many Chinese people in America. He also wants to show Americans there are Chinese people like him who do not stand with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he said.

Lee, 36, grew up in a small coastal city near Beijing, with limited free access to information in China. At the age of 24, he found a chat room where discussions were unfiltered.

Alex Lee holds a flag after traveling on foot from West Covina to Barstow, California, in this undated photo. (Photo courtesy of Alex Lee)
Alex Lee holds a flag after traveling on foot from West Covina to Barstow, California, in this undated photo. (Photo courtesy of Alex Lee)

Arguing with people abroad, he defended with patriotic fervor the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) until, he said, he dove deeper into its history and found a different story than what he was taught.

"Liberals and conservatives were arguing with each other every day," Lee said about what he was witnessing online when he used the platform from 2009 to 2010.

"Like current Americans," he added, referring to heated political debates.

He studied sociology in Japan in 2016, but three years later, left for Hong Kong to join the pro-democracy protests and to make public speeches because it was less restrictive than in mainland China, he said.

"I thought, as a sociologist, that I knew I could do something for the protest because we support democracy and freedom," he said.

On the 100-year anniversary of the CCP this month, VOA reported similar disappointments among people from Hong Kong. While university students in the 1990s were inspired to run for public office, Hong Kong was returned to Chinese authority in 1997 after British rule since 1839. Pro-democracy advocates say open representation in government has become a distant dream.

Students on front lines

Student involvement in protests had grown dramatically until last year when a controversial national security law significantly curtailed democratic freedoms, critics said.

"Young people were wearing masks before COVID to conceal their identity and gave pseudonyms," shared Paul Greaney, who attended Fudan University in Shanghai and reported on the student protests in Hong Kong in 2019 for NTD Television.

"Everyone on the front lines were young people, and the majority of them were educated and very intelligent," he said.

Social media — like the Telegram app — were key to communicating protests, explained Greaney, as students and young people pushed back on authoritarian rule.

"Many older people I spoke with supported the young people because they couldn't go to the front lines," said Greaney. "They were really brave, they were prepared to get arrested, but still went there."

The crackdown has been met with resistance. This week, nine people were arrested on suspected terrorism charges, the youngest being 15 years old.

VOA reported in January that under a recent national security law, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, 24, was charged with subversion.

And in Chinese-occupied Tibet, three Tibetan teenagers went missing and another was hospitalized with two broken legs after reportedly failing to register a WeChat text group chat with local authorities, according to a Tibetan advocacy group. China has occupied Tibet and imposed pro-China authoritarian rule since 1950.

Fear of speaking out

"During the height of the protests, there was definitely a lot of student activity on social media about the protests," according to an international student from Hong Kong attending New York University in New York City, requesting anonymity for fear of retaliation.

"Some people were worried about posting, especially since in China, people are aware of phone surveillance, but a lot did post. Majority that I had seen were in support of Hong Kong, but some students with wealthier families whose parents benefit from China's involvement did post pro-China content," this person said.

Being an international student, this person said it was difficult to discuss the protests with other students who might report them to the CCP.

"While I do think some people are aware that there's something going on in Hong Kong, I don't think a lot of people really know the intensity of the situation and the reasons behind the protests," the international student said about American awareness of politics in Asia.

When last in Hong Kong in 2019 before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the student reported having great difficulty getting around the city.

"I was staying by the waterfront in Wan Chai, one of the main sites for the protests, and the roads were blocked, police were everywhere and sometimes it was difficult to access the subway, get taxis, and to access certain major areas of the city. I haven't been back since, so I'm not sure if that's still the case."

Not an easy ride

Lee, most recently in the Mojave Desert that stretches across California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona in the Southwest U.S., said he nearly perished in the 110-degree heat as he pushed his bike along sandy streets that made riding impossible.

But he said he intends to persevere after being helped along the way by average Americans.

"Idealists are people who still have the courage and faith to pursue the light in the dark night," he texted.

"I'm not the first person to cross America from coast to coast, but I might be the first person to do that in order to support Hong Kong protests and democracy."

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Australian and Chinese university chiefs meet in Adelaide

FILE - Students walk around the University of New South Wales campus in Sydney, Australia, Dec. 1, 2020.
FILE - Students walk around the University of New South Wales campus in Sydney, Australia, Dec. 1, 2020.

Australian university leaders held talks Wednesday with their Chinese counterparts over the Canberra government’s plans to cut the number of international students. Australia has said the reductions will ease the stress on housing and reduce immigration.

Representatives from the Group of Eight Universities, which represents large research-intensive institutions in Australia, met Wednesday in Adelaide with leaders from the China Education Association for International Exchange.

The Chinese delegation included senior officials from 22 leading research-intensive universities in China.

In a joint statement, the two groups said that “our research and education links not only deliver enormous economic and social benefits for both countries, but also foster enduring people-to-people ties.”

The talks focused on “constructive dialogue focused on challenges and opportunities around university research in a fast-evolving, globalized world.”

One major challenge is Australia’s plans to cap the number of international students it allows into the country to relieve pressure on housing and rental accommodation in the major cities. It is part of a broader effort to reduce immigration.

In 2023, official data showed that 787,000 international students studied in Australia, exceeding levels seen before the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the tertiary sector says plans to shut out some foreign students would cost the economy billions of dollars.

Vicki Thompson is the chief executive of the Group of Eight Universities. She told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. Wednesday that it is unclear how far international student numbers would be cut.

“At the moment there is a lot of unknowns about what this will actually mean. We are in very good discussions with government, though. They certainly understand the impact that our international education sector has on tourism, on the economy. So, you know, they do not want to bust it either. It is just how can we come to, I guess, a compromise position where, you know, we do not damage one of our most successful export markets,” she said.

Most overseas students in Australia come from China, India, Nepal, the Philippines and Vietnam, according to government data.

Under the government’s plans, colleges and universities would have to provide purpose-built accommodation for international students if they wanted to exceed the caps on numbers.

Specific quotas for foreign students, however, have not yet been made public by the Canberra government.

Australia’s plan to curb the number of students from other countries is expected to be discussed when Chinese Premier Li Qiang meets Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese in Canberra next month.

Some shuttered universities appear to reopen on the web 

FILE - A magnifying glass is held in front of a computer screen in this picture illustration taken in Berlin, May 21, 2013.
FILE - A magnifying glass is held in front of a computer screen in this picture illustration taken in Berlin, May 21, 2013.

At least nine universities that have closed appeared to be looking for new students on the web, but the schools are neither accredited nor cleared to accept student aid.

In a USA Today investigation, Chris Quintana looks at what might be going on with the imposter websites. (May 2024)

Taliban push for normalizing male-only higher education

FILE - Taliban members are seen at Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 14, 2023.
FILE - Taliban members are seen at Kabul University in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 14, 2023.

In coming weeks, tens of thousands of students in Afghanistan are set to sit for university entrance examinations.

Notably absent from the list of candidates will be females.

The upcoming exams are expected to determine the admission of about 70,000 students to public academic and professional institutions this year.

Last week, when officials from the Taliban's Ministry of Higher Education unveiled the specifics of the upcoming exams, they conspicuously omitted any mention of the exclusion of female students from university admissions.

Despite facing widespread domestic and international criticism for their prohibition of women from educational and professional opportunities, the Taliban have persisted in enforcing discriminatory gender policies.

“The exclusion of women from higher education significantly limits the country's economic potential, as half the population is unable to contribute effectively to the workforce,” David Roof, a professor of educational studies at Ball State University, wrote to VOA.

In December 2022, the Taliban suspended nearly 100,000 female students enrolled in both public and private universities across Afghanistan.

With the nation already grappling with some of the most dire female literacy rates globally, Afghanistan has failed to produce any female professionals over the past two years.

According to aid agencies, the absence of female medical professionals, compounded by other restrictions, has contributed to the deaths of thousands of young mothers in Afghanistan.

The United Nations reports that over 2.5 million Afghan school-age girls are deprived of education.

“The interruption in education can result in a generational setback, where entire cohorts of women remain uneducated and unqualified for professional roles,” Roof said.

'Hermit kingdom'

The elusive supreme leader of the Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada, purportedly responsible for the ban on women's education and employment, has never publicly clarified his directive.

Initially, when secondary schools were shuttered for girls in March 2022, Taliban officials said the action was "temporary," insisting that the Islamist leadership did not fundamentally oppose women's education.

However, more than two years later, Taliban officials have provided no rationale for the continued absence of girls from classrooms.

“They have normalized gender-apartheid,” said an Afghan women’s rights activist who did not want to be named in this article, fearing the Taliban’s persecution.

“This is a new norm in Afghanistan, however insane and destructive it may look in the rest of the world,” she added.

In January 2022, the U.S. Department of State appointed Rina Amiri as the special envoy for Afghan women, aiming to garner international backing for Afghan women's rights.

Amiri has actively engaged with Muslim leaders, emphasizing the importance of women's rights in Islam, in hopes of influencing Taliban leaders.

Despite these efforts, there has been no indication from Taliban leaders of any intention to abandon their discriminatory policies against women. “There is no indication this will subside,” Amiri told a Congressional hearing in January.

Senior U.S. officials have also warned the Taliban that there will be no normalization in their relations with the international community unless they allow women to return to work and education.

Thus far, the Taliban’s response has been that they value depriving women of basic human rights more than having normal relations with the rest of the world.

Hong Kong can help link students in US, China 

FILE - A visitor sets up his camera in the Victoria Peak area to photograph Hong Kong's skyline, Sept. 1, 2019.
FILE - A visitor sets up his camera in the Victoria Peak area to photograph Hong Kong's skyline, Sept. 1, 2019.

Pandemics, climate change and other global challenges require nations and scientists to work together, and student exchanges are a great way to foster that cooperation.

Writing in The South China Morning Post, Brian Y.S. Wong explains that Hong Kong has a crucial role to play in connecting students in the United States and China. (May 2024)

Learn about religious accommodations in US colleges  

FILE - St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., March 16, 2022.
FILE - St. Thomas More Catholic Chapel on the campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn., March 16, 2022.

From prayer services to housing options and vegetarian meal selections, colleges in the United States offer ways to accommodate students of various faiths.

In U.S. News & World Report,Anayat Durrani explains how you can learn about religious accommodations at colleges and universities. (April 2024)

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