Students from mainland China studying at the University of Queensland in Brisbane surrounded a group of students supporting the Hong Kong anti-extradition movement, ripping down their posters in a standoff that ended in some punches being thrown.
The confrontation came after a group of around 80 students from Hong Kong held a rally at 10.00 a.m. on Wednesday, setting up a Lennon Wall in the manner of anti-extradition protests back home and displaying two large posters opposing plans to allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects from Hong Kong to mainland China.
Eventually, campus security and police intervened to separate the two groups of students, with the mainland Chinese students refusing to leave and demanding an apology from the Hong Kong students, who were also protesting the incarceration of Uyghurs and other Muslims in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Student Union president Georgia Milroy told Australian broadcaster ABC that the angry scenes were quite frightening.
"I think there were a lot of impassioned students feeling very strongly on both sides … to be honest at times it was quite scary," she said.
"There was some violence that did occur ... It became borderline nationalist with the playing of the national anthem and I think that's when things started to become very inflamed."
A University of Queensland student who gave only an English name, Christy, said the main idea was to call on the administration of Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam to accept key demands from anti-extradition campaigners, including the formal withdrawal of amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, the setting up of an independent commission of inquiry and an amnesty for all arrested protesters.
"Actually we mostly just wanted to reiterate the five major demands that Hong Kong has been fighting for all along," Christy said. "We also had some new information to put out about the events of July 21 in Yuen Long, and in Sheung Wan [outside China's Central Liaison Office], so as to tell people who care about Hong Kong a bit more about the situation there."
Another participant surnamed Hui said the event had been under way for some time, when a group of around 200 students from mainland China arrived at the scene, sticking up messages on the Lennon Wall saying "Hong Kong is China" and ripping down messages that were previously left there.
They had brought along a loudspeaker, through which they blared the "March of the Volunteers," China's national anthem, drowning out the sound of the Hong Kong students singing "Sing Hallelujah to the Lord," which has become a feature of the anti-extradition movement.
"A few of the guys got very worked up and starting kicking the noticeboards we had set up, and then they started on us," Hui said. "How did they attack us? They were slapping at the leaflets we had in our hands, and pulling at our arms and clothing."
"Some of the guys in our group went to stop them, which was when there was a bit of pushing and shoving," he said.
Hui said the mainland Chinese students appeared to confuse the anti-extradition protests with calls for independence.
"That was the stupid thing, that they didn't really seem to understand what we were trying to say, because they just kept saying we were pro-independence," he said. "But the stuff we had put out had nothing to do with independence."
"Also, it was pretty ironic that a bunch of mainland Chinese students who are studying in a democratic country are playing the same mainland Chinese game of trampling on other people's democracies," he said.
The university subsequently issued a public statement saying it expected staff and students to "express their views in a lawful and respectful manner, and in accordance with the policies and values of the university".
"Earlier today, in response to safety concerns resulting from a student-initiated protest on campus, the University requested police support," the UQ statement said.
"On the advice of police, protestors were requested to move on. The safety of all students is paramount to the university."
Hong Kong student David Ng said the mainland students had made no attempt to enter into debate before the standoff.
"In the Queensland incident, they didn't talk to the Hong Kong students about what is going on with the anti-extradition movement," Ng said. "They just said they have to apologize and then affirm that Hong Kong is China."
Ng said it is entirely possible that mainland Chinese students have no idea what the anti-extradition movement really means for people in Hong Kong.
"Maybe they think the anti-extradition protests are trying to remove Hong Kong from Chinese sovereignty, but it's more likely that they think that anything oppositional directed at the central government means that you are pro-independence," he said.
Wu Lebao, a mainland Chinese student currently studying in Australia, says the sheer numbers of Chinese students at overseas universities has fueled their demand for influence.
"At a lot of colleges and universities in Australia, including the University of Queensland, the proportion of Chinese students is more than 20 percent, or even higher, and their contribution to the school's income from tuition fees may be into the hundreds of millions of Australian dollars," Wu said.
"Chinese students use this tuition fee contribution as form of clout to achieve a certain political purpose and exert influence on the school," he said.
Reported by Tseng Yat-yiu for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Wang Yun for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.