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Fulbright Offers Firsthand Glimpse at Struggle for Democracy

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Col. Howard Sanborn, professor of international studies. VMI photo by Kelly Nye.

When he received word in the spring that he’d been selected for a Fulbright award allowing him to teach in Hong Kong for the fall 2019 semester, Col. Howard Sanborn knew that rumblings of civil unrest were beginning in the former British crown colony, now officially a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China.

However, there was no way that Sanborn, professor of international studies, could have known that not only would the pro-democracy protests come to his host campus, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, but that they would rise to such a level that the rest of the semester would be canceled in mid-November. Nor could he have known that he’d wind up fleeing the campus on foot, carrying a week’s worth of clothes in a rucksack.

Originally, Sanborn, an East Asia and comparative politics specialist, had hoped to use his time in Hong Kong to study the city’s legislature, the Legislative Council, a 70-member body that’s made up of a mix of individuals elected from the citizenry by a popular vote and people elected to represent certain sectors of society such as finance, insurance and education.

“[The Legislative Council] offers an interesting natural experiment to see how people from traditionally democratic constituencies … pursue their careers versus the people from these sector-specific [groups],” Sanborn noted. “That was the germ of the research.”

However, the Legislative Council was closed for much of the time Sanborn was in Hong Kong because protesters had vandalized its building over the summer. Instead, Sanborn used the four months he was there to teach a class on democracies in the west, and also to network with others and pursue another line of research – this one having to do with higher education and its effect on citizenship in Hong Kong.

It was a challenging time to be a university professor. When Sanborn first saw a student roster for his class, there were approximately 50 names. However, many students wound up dropping the class, and others often didn’t show up because they were taking part in class boycotts encouraged by protestors. At one point in October, there were fewer than 10 students in Sanborn’s class.

“It was difficult to build a rapport with the students because of all of the stuff going on,” Sanborn reported.

“Americans have democracy, freedom, liberty, fairness and equality,” said Sanborn. “It’s the values that support the waving of the flag that matter to those people. … Now more than ever, we have a responsibility to stay engaged and participate and lead as democratic citizens.”

Then, in mid-November, the protests struck close to home. As conflicts between student protesters and police escalated, Sanborn began to realize that although he was safe in his high-rise apartment and had plenty of food, there was the possibility that he’d be barricaded in his building by the ongoing conflict and unable to get out for more supplies. When friends called to ask if he’d like a ride to a safer part of the city, Sanborn accepted.

Before leaving, he let a friend know where a spare key to his apartment was located, just in case she ran out of food and needed more. Then he set out on foot.

“I took a week’s worth of clothes, not knowing when I’d come back,” he recalled. “The protesters were fine. They didn’t give me any problems.”

After climbing over several barricades and helping others do the same, Sanborn met up with his friends and took a ride to a hotel, where he stayed for approximately a week.

“I never felt physically in danger,” Sanborn stated. He was worried, though, about what might happen if the electricity or water were to be cut off.

Others were quite concerned for Sanborn’s safety. No sooner had he checked in to the hotel than he was on the phone with Col. Dennis Foster, chair of the international studies department, and Brig. Gen. Robert “Bob” Moreschi, deputy superintendent for academics and dean of the faculty.

“The dean and [Foster] were concerned for the right reasons,” said Sanborn. “They were very, very supportive.”

Sanborn also reported receiving good support from U.S. officials in Hong Kong. “I was in constant communication with the U.S. consulate,” he said. “They were incredible, keeping an eye out, asking if I was okay, asking if I needed anything.”

After a week in the hotel, Sanborn flew to Tokyo to celebrate Thanksgiving with his wife and three teenagers, who had flown over to join him there. Originally, the family had planned to spend the holiday in Hong Kong, but with safety in mind, Sanborn and his wife decided to have another kind of Asian holiday instead.

In late November, Sanborn flew back to Hong Kong for another two weeks there before returning to the United States. Now, he’s busy not only teaching his own classes, but also serving as acting department head while Foster is on leave this semester.

He’s also been fielding a plethora of questions from cadets and fellow faculty members. In mid-January, Sanborn related, he went over the syllabus for an applied statistics class he’s teaching and then asked if there were any questions, thinking cadets might seek clarification about the syllabus. Immediately, a cadet’s hand popped up: “Tell us what you did in Hong Kong!”

Sanborn also noted that his experience abroad was not quite the adventure that cadets imagine it was.

“They expect a mixture of Indiana Jones and Jason Bourne,” he commented. “They’re a little deflated when I tell them, ‘No, I was just there to study legislative politics.’”

On a more serious note, Sanborn has returned from Hong Kong with a message not only for the VMI community but also his fellow Americans as a whole: Don’t take American democracy for granted. It’s a lesson he learned from watching young Hong Kong residents wave American flags and carry posters depicting President Donald Trump as they protested Chinese rule.

“Americans have democracy, freedom, liberty, fairness and equality,” said Sanborn. “It’s the values that support the waving of the flag that matter to those people. … Now more than ever, we have a responsibility to stay engaged and participate and lead as democratic citizens.”

  • Mary Price VMI Communications & Marketing