SEOUL - Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement is gaining support among South Korean college students, who see some overlap with their country’s own struggle for democracy in the 1980s.
In recent months, Seoul has seen regular rallies with hundreds of students, many wearing black in solidarity with the Hong Kong protesters and carrying signs reading “Stand for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong” and “Stop Police Brutality.”
"South Korea experienced political oppression in the 1980s and so does Hong Kong in recent years,” says Ahn Ji-sun, a junior political science major at Sogang University in Seoul, who organized a group to support Hong Kong's democratization.
The protests have led to conflicts between South Korean students and those from mainland China, who view the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters as violent radicals.
At many universities in Seoul, mainland Chinese students have vandalized “Lennon Walls,” which contain messages of support for the Hong Kong protesters.
In some cases, Chinese students have attacked their South Korean classmates and accused them of interfering in China’s internal affairs.
"Many posters got damaged, and we also discovered that the personal profiles of protesters are spread over the private chat rooms of Chinese students," Ahn said.
In other cases, Chinese diplomatic officials have demanded South Korean universities cancel events with Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, according to some activists.
The controversy underscores global concerns about Chinese attempts to control overseas conversations on Beijing’s policies. The problem is especially acute in countries like South Korea, which host large numbers of mainland Chinese students.
"Beijing's 'patriotic education' discourages mainland Chinese students from debating the issue,” says Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead, the students take blunt steps, such as tearing down or defacing posters to repress freedom of speech.”
Why South Koreans support Hong Kong
The Hong Kong protests started six months ago in opposition to a controversial extradition proposal that could have resulted in Hong Kongers being sent to stand trial in mainland China. From the beginning, Hong Kong authorities condemned the protests as riots, violently cracking down on even peaceful demonstrations.
For many South Koreans, that crackdown is reminiscent of the 1980s, when university students protested against South Korea's brutal military dictatorship. South Korea’s struggle for democracy faced similarly long odds and took years to achieve success.
In the southeastern city of Gwangju, South Korea’s military regime carried out a bloody crackdown, killing as many as 600 people in 1980. The protest movement eventually spread nationwide, and South Korea held its first democratic election in 1987.
"The situation in Hong Kong and South Korea in the past are not precisely the same, but students who watch the violence feel they need to support Hong Kong and find common grounds in their history," says Steve Chung, an assistant lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Some online videos have also helped spur South Korean sympathy for Hong Kong.
In early June, a video of Hong Kong protesters singing 'March for our Beloved' in Cantonese went viral on Korean social media.
An icon of South Korea’s democracy movement, the song was written in commemoration of a South Korean activist who died in the Gwangju massacre. It was also sung by Koreans in 2017 during protests against former President Park Geun-hye, who was later impeached.
Some Hong Kongers have also been inspired by movies detailing South Korea’s democratization, leading to a further sense of kinship, says Ryu Yeong-ha, a Chinese language professor at Baekseok University.
In particular, Hong Kongers have latched onto films such as 1987: When the Day Comes, which is based on events surrounding South Korea’s June Democratic Uprising, and Taxi Driver, which deals with the Gwangju Massacre, Ryu says.
“This kind of cultural exchange encourages South Korean students to pay more attention to Hong Kong than other global issues,” Ryu says.
Clashes with Chinese students
But that solidarity has not been welcomed by mainland Chinese students in South Korea, who have frequently confronted their South Korean classmates over the protests. In some cases, authorities have had to intervene.
Last month, police booked a local and a Chinese student for physically attacking each other at a Lennon Wall at Seoul’s Myongji University.
A week later, Seoul police booked five Chinese students for damaging private property - posters and banners in support of Hong Kong’s protesters. Police are considering filing charges against the students.
In a statement, the Chinese embassy in South Korea said it is “natural and reasonable” for Chinese students to express their resentment and oppose actions that "undermine China's sovereignty and distort facts."
Moreover, South Korean activists say that pressure from the Chinese consulate in Gwangju resulted in the Chonnam National University canceling a campus event with a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist. The school denies being pressured, though it did cancel the event.
A widespread problem
According to a 2019 Human Rights Watch report, Chinese government authorities have grown bolder in recent years in trying to shape global perceptions of China on campuses and in academic institutions outside China.
"These authorities have sought to influence academic discussions, monitor overseas students from China, censor scholarly inquiry, or otherwise interfere with academic freedom," the report said.
It is especially a problem in countries like South Korea, where Chinese students make up an especially large portion of the foreign student population.
According to South Korea’s Ministry of Education, there are more than 71,000 Chinese students in South Korean advanced educational institutions, or 44 percent of total international students.
"Opinions of Chinese students are already a major one to be reckoned with," Ryu said.
Lecturers who have international students are required to filter politically sensitive topics to avoid backlashes, he said.
"During my lecture, some Chinese students try to correct my speech, insisting that I call it the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, not Hong Kong, or denying the Republic of China (Taiwan)" Ryu added.
Amid a deepening conflict between Korean and Chinese students in November, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies (HUFS) authorities removed some posters in support of the Hong Kong protests. The school also said it would ban all unauthorized posters, to avoid confusion caused by “irresponsible expression of opinions.”
Choong-Ang University also banned both pro and anti-Hong Kong protest posters on campus to protect the school from “disorder.”
Because of those steps, the dispute is now not only about Hong Kong, but also whether South Korean students will be allowed to speak freely at their own schools, Chung said.
"More people will engage themselves with pro-democracy activities to protect free speech," he says. "Since they see the recent situation on campus harming their rights."