SHENZHEN/HONG KONG (Reuters) - Having fled Hong Kong universities they had thought were a ticket to success, Chinese students from the mainland sit in hostels and noodle shops in the neighbouring city of Shenzhen wondering how they'll complete their studies.
With campuses turned into blazing battlegrounds, courses cancelled and anti-China sentiment growing more virulent, students from mainland China are getting out of Hong Kong with little idea if they will ever go back.
"It’s really just not safe any more and I don’t see it getting any better," said one twentysomething student leaning on a suitcase outside a restaurant in Shenzhen, which abuts Hong Kong.
Fears intensified this week because of a widely circulated video of a mainland student being beaten by protesters at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. Anger boiled over there following the death of a student who fell from a car park as police used teargas against protesters.
"The discrimination towards mainlanders is growing worse," said 22-year-old Frank, a postgraduate student who had just left the university for Shenzhen. "They’re so prejudiced towards us mainlanders and that’s not going to change, so why go back?"
Before anti-government protests erupted in Hong Kong more than five months ago, there were some 12,000 students among more than one million mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong, according to official figures.
The pace of departures accelerated this week as intensifying violence turned campuses into nightmarish scenes of blazing petrol bombs and swirling teargas.
Dozens of mainland students from the Chinese University of Hong Kong were so fearful they called police and fled by police boat from a dock near the Sha Tin campus on Wednesday to avoid having to use roads blockaded by black clad protesters.
Support groups in Shenzhen and Hong Kong-based associations with mainland ties have rushed to help.
The Shenzhen Youth Community, operated by the Communist Youth League, said it had been deluged with calls after offering free temporary hostel accommodation for mainland students fleeing Hong Kong.
Peking University HSBC EMBA's student association said it would host some students from Hong Kong so they could continue studies near a Shenzhen university campus with up to seven days accommodation for free.
Within hours of the offer, it had received more than 300 requests, according to a staffer running the hotline side.
Victor Mou, 35, chairman of the Hong Kong Nanjing Youth Association, told Reuters the group had already helped about 100 mainland students get to Shenzhen.
Some students hoped they would not be away for long.
"If the government can control the situation I’ll go back to Hong Kong next week," said Shuai a 22-year-old postgraduate student from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology squatting on the steps of a hostel in Shenzhen.
PRESTIGE AT STAKE
Good academic reputations, greater freedom and the possibility of gaining a foothold overseas were all reasons for mainland Chinese students to study in Hong Kong.
With three universities ranked in the top Top 100 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, it has the same number as mainland China.
But some classes are now being cancelled or being switched to online learning.
"If the whole semester is cancelled they have no reason to go back to Hong Kong," said one mainland Chinese woman, who works in public relations in Hong Kong and had volunteered to help the fleeing students, as she shepherded three nervous looking girls to dinner in Shenzhen.
Not all are giving up.
"As long as I stay home during clashes and don't violate laws and protest-taboos... I will be safe,” said Jane Chen, an undergraduate business student from the mainland at City University. "I am convinced that the spirit of Hong Kong will soon recover."
Even if all classes resume, another factor driving students away is growing anti-China sentiment in Hong Kong, generated by fears of Beijing's tightening grip,
Those fears have fuelled the protests and a groundswell of popular anger.
Protesters have sometimes targeted mainlanders with violence when they challenged them.
In everyday life, some mainlanders complain of discrimination. They stand out because of their accents or inability to speak the Cantonese dialect used widely in Hong Kong as well as the Mandarin language of mainland China.
A professor in charge of a postgraduate programme at Hong Kong Baptist University said he expected applications to drop by a quarter - though with 1,000 mainland applications for 100 spaces it would not mean they go unfilled.
"The masked, black-clad students have really damaged the reputations of Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the University of Hong Kong," said China's nationalist Global Times. "Mainland students will surely think twice before applying for colleges and universities in Hong Kong."
(This story has been refiled to remove extraneous word in fourth paragraph)
(Additional reporting by Sarah Wu, Clare Jim, Donny Kwok in Hong Kong, Keith Zhai in Singapore; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)