Zhao Kang’21 discusses life in Hong Kong under pandemic restrictions during semester abroad
A few weeks ago, The Round Table published a story about Beloit College students who were forced to either return home from their study abroad experiences early or remain in lockdown in their host countries, after in-person classes around the world shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
One of the students mentioned in the story was Zhao Kang’21, who is spending his Spring 2020 semester at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, where the crisis was palpable much earlier than in many parts of the world. On April 11, The Round Table sat down (virtually) with Kang to discuss his experiences during the past several months.
The Round Table: Why did you choose Lingnan University?
Zhao Kang’21: I’ve been asked my reason many times: I chose Lingnan because it’s the only official university in Hong Kong I could choose [through Beloit’s study abroad program]. I study Political Science, mainly Asian Studies, and Hong Kong is exactly in the middle between Western civilization and Eastern or Chinese civilization.
And also because last year, there were a lot of protests in Hong Kong, and Hong Kong has a very long history of protests. I was there last year during the protests, for summer school; it was accidentally, but I’m glad I was there. I used my camera to record them; I was mostly there as a viewer, but not as a protester.
Did you always want to study in Hong Kong?
I’d been in Hong Kong several times before, but not as a student. Now, I want to go to the Chinese University of Hong Kong to study media for my Master’s Degree. I’m planning to go there after Beloit.
Can you remember the first time you heard about what was then called the novel coronavirus?
At the time it wasn’t called that name either, but in late December I read about a Hong Kong journalist who got into Wuhan to try to talk with local officials about a new virus there, but the officials refused to respond to him, and he had to leave Wuhan. But I don’t know what exactly happened, I just heard about that. It was my first time [hearing about the virus].
What did you think at the time? Did it sound serious?
It was just a story. To me, it was a story about a Hong Kong journalist, but not about the virus.
But when I first entered Hong Kong [for my semester here], I could see that everyone had a mask. I didn’t know why everyone had masks, especially at Lingnan University; everyone—staff, faculty and the local students all had masks. I was curious about that, and then I learned about the virus.
By that time, were there already confirmed cases in Hong Kong, or were people just worried about the virus arriving there?
It was already in Hong Kong. I got here on January 14 or 15, so at that time everyone already had a mask.
Did your friends and professors at Lingnan University seem worried about it? Were you?
They talked about it, starting with our first classes, and [among students] after class. I don’t know if they were worried about it, but if everyone has a mask, that already means something.
I wasn’t really worried. Although I learned about the virus, I’m too young to have experienced SARS. [Severe acute respiratory syndrome, also caused by a coronavirus, caused an outbreak mostly in China and Hong Kong between 2002 and 2004.] I was young, but I remember that period. I couldn’t go to kindergarten [in Beijing], and I remember it as a really fun time, because I just got to play; I didn’t have to go to school.
But people here had a really bad experience at that time, so they were really worried about a new SARS. But I didn’t worry until the report of an outbreak in mainland China. I’d already bought some masks, because, you know, everyone on campus had a mask, so I figured I should have some, too. But I didn’t really think it was a big problem until later reports.
You’re from Beijing originally. What were you hearing from your family and friends in mainland China after the outbreak?
I know Beijing had really strict regulations after the outbreak, and people couldn’t go out a lot. But now, everything seems to be much better on the mainland, especially in Beijing. Only people arriving from other countries need to be isolated, but not the local people.
My mom told me that in her company, 50 percent of people are going in to maintain operations, but the other half of the employees have to stay home. I think [those employees] only have a basic salary, not a lot, during this period. She works for an international company, and it’s kind of an example [of a typical company] in Beijing.
What were you hearing from Beloit College and the Office of International Education when the outbreak started?
Not a lot. I did receive a couple of concerned emails, but they were just sent to the group [of students who were abroad this semester].
There’s one thing I have a complaint about. After Lingnan University declared that people had to stay home and take online classes, one of my friends who was also at Lingnan this semester talked to OIE, and OIE said he could end his semester [at Lingnan] and go back to Beloit. There was still enough time to select courses and end the exchange. But I didn’t know about that until I asked OIE as well, and by that time it was too late for me [to do the same thing]. At the time [that option] looked really good, but I didn’t know about it until it was too late.
But now I know that wouldn’t have been a good idea, either.
When did your semester start? When did it move online?
It started the 17th [of January], [Beloit’s semester started the 20th] and I remember that it was the end of the first week when I learned that I could have ended my exchange.
Holy moly—so by that time, Lingnan University had already closed and moved online?
They had already closed. Originally, they closed through March, but then they extended the date until further notice.
How do you feel about Lingnan University’s response to the outbreak?
Honestly, it’s very good, but not for me. We have online class, but that’s every university in the world.
Everyone on campus has one mask per person, every day. In the beginning, I needed to fill out a form from campus security, but now I only need to swipe my student ID and I can get one mask. I didn’t have enough masks at the beginning because everyone was buying them, but now I don’t worry about that. But that’s why it’s not for me, because I don’t go outside a lot, only for food.
Probably a good idea!
Yeah, so one mask, I can use for probably two or three days. So I can save them up, and that’s enough for me.
Also, before entering the campus, they’ll test your temperature. It’s a very strict regulation on campus, and it makes me feel very safe.
Then, are people still going onto campus?
Not a lot of students are going onto campus. I think most people have gone home because they already live in Hong Kong and can easily go back. But you can see people cleaning everywhere, every day [on campus].
Are you living in your dorm room now? Are there a lot of students still living in the dorms, or is it mostly international students?
I am [in my dorm], and it’s on campus, same as Beloit. On my floor, there are three or four students left, I think. A lot of international students have ended their semester and gone home.
Some local students have returned to campus, because Hong Kong’s houses are very small, and after a while people don’t feel comfortable [isolating] in their homes.
Do you prefer to stay in Hong Kong, rather than go back to Beijing?
I’m thinking about going back to Beijing, but if I go back right now, I would need to be isolated for 14 days. I would have to pay for it, and it’s not very cheap. You can’t be isolated in your home.
One of my friends told me that after you leave the airport, about 200 people are transferred to a hotel on a big bus, and health conditions [at the hotel] are very concerning. People told me that there’s no service: the hotel is run by nurses, and they don’t know how to clean [the rooms]; they only know how to kill the virus.
So I’m worried about the isolation, and I hope I can stay here for some time, to see if the policy changes. But I might still have to follow that policy at the end of the semester.
What has it been like in the rest of Hong Kong? How would you describe the rest of the city’s reaction to the outbreak?
People in Hong Kong have been wearing masks since the beginning. But there was no strict law, until recently, to stop people from getting into public spaces, at least near my university.
Now, every restaurant has a law that at most four people can be at one table [restaurants could not exceed 50 percent of their normal capacity between March 28 and April 11].
But like I said, [everyone is taking precautions], so I can feel good about that.
Has the Hong Kong government made any recommendations about sheltering in place?
Of course, yeah. They’ve made a lot of recommendations, but not regulations.
They had a policy, much earlier than the United States, to provide every resident with, I think, 8,000 Hong Kong dollars, which is roughly 1,000 U.S. dollars. [In February, adults in Hong Kong each received HK$10,000, which is about US$1,280.] I think the first to do that in China was Macau [a city about 40 miles west of Hong Kong], because Macau is a rich, small city. Then, Hong Kong copied Macau’s policy of giving people money. And also Singapore [followed suit].
But not the mainland! I didn’t receive any money, neither from the United States nor from the Hong Kong government. It’s really unlucky; I hoped that I could receive money for the first time from the government, but no.
I’m sure you’ve heard that college students in the U.S. aren’t getting any money, either.
Right, not everyone is covered, but Hong Kong’s policy is for everyone. Very socialist.
I’m sure you’ve also heard that some members of the U.S. government, especially our president, have tried to claim that they have the right to call this virus the “Wuhan virus” or the “Chinese virus.” I’m curious how you would respond to that.
I think it might be reasonable for you to call it that because it’s from China, and people might argue that the virus spread to the rest of the world because the Chinese government didn’t stop it.
But I don’t think that’s the reason that the U.S. administration, especially President Trump, calls it that. I think President Trump and other people call it that only because they want to cover up their failure in protecting [the country] from the virus, and also because they want to take people’s focus away from that issue and make it into a “foreign” issue. They do it because they want to save their administration, but not because they really think of it as Chinese.
I’m not a strong nationalist or a strong supporter of the Chinese government, but [that attitude] has caused racism in every country. Calling it will cause a gap between China and the rest of the world.
China is also an important place to get masks and other important resources and labor, so it’s better to incorporate it, not hate each other.
It has nothing to do with the virus.
On April 11, the day of this conversation, total confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Hong Kong had just hit 1,000 (the metropolitan area has a population of about seven and a half million), and total cases in China were at about 83 thousand. As of May 9, Hong Kong has reported only 45 more cases and four deaths; mainland China has not quite reached 84 thousand cases and has seen about 4,600 deaths. Hong Kong has extended its restrictions into the next several weeks. Lingnan University’s semester ends in early June.