When Dr Tian Xiaoli joined HKU’s Department of Sociology from the United States six years ago, she encountered a puzzling situation. Despite the increase in Mainland student numbers on local university campuses, and the efforts of universities to promote cross-group interactions, local and Mainland students were segregating themselves. To a sociologist, it was a natural and fascinating phenomenon to investigate.

Were political or language differences dividing them? Dr Tian suspected something more basic was at play. In research spanning the Umbrella Movement and other political events in Hong Kong, she found the main reason students occupying shared space on campus did not mix was because, paradoxically, they had little opportunity to do so. They keep different hours, different mealtimes and different habits.

“This is a problem that is not unique to Hong Kong,” she said. “On most campuses, international students will only interact with international students. Even students from the same cultural background – for example, British students studying in Canada – have been shown to talk mainly to other international students, not local students. So this is more of a local versus non-local problem.”

Dr Tian’s conclusions were drawn from two studies, one looking at the differences in how local and Mainland students use social media and the other at their interactions and attitudes towards each other.

The social media study found Mainland students tend to use RenRen and WeChat more than Facebook and are more concerned with seeking practical information such as where to get the cheapest train tickets or find a good place to live in Hong Kong. Local students are far more likely to be on Facebook keeping in touch with people in their network or for entertainment. So online, they have different purposes.

In the second study, Dr Tian interviewed 80 students from four Hong Kong universities, including HKU, who were evenly split between local and Mainland students. She wanted to know whether, how and why they interacted with each other and, revealingly, found that local students not only had limited contact with Mainland students, but: “Many of them said they don’t talk to other local students either. They feel a low sense of belonging to their university and a higher sense of belonging to their high school because they were always together with their classmates, in class and leisure time. This pushed me to focus on their daily routines.”

She found that Mainland students, being from out of town, tend to live close to campus and are more focussed on academic work because they have fewer ties in the community. Local students tend to leave campus right after class and return to their home-based community.

It’s very simple: put them together for a prolonged period of time, preferably in a challenging environment, and they will become close friends, they will fall in love with each other.

Dr Tian Xiaoli

Parallel lives

Even when they live together in the residential halls, Mainland students tend to eat dinner, sleep, and get up earlier than locals. Different daily life schedules are the most prevalent source of conflict for the hall residents, and many students interviewed blamed their different schedules for the lack of cross-group interaction. Dr Tian came across one Mainland student who did not see her roommate, a local student, for one month because one of them was always asleep when the other was up.

Dr Tian also considered whether language, lack of motivation and discrimination were keeping the students apart, but found these to be less convincing explanations. Mainland students who speak Cantonese said they were still more likely to socialise with other Mainland students, and discrimination, while present, was modified towards fellow students.

“The conflicts between Mainland China and Hong Kong have been increasing, so I asked local students about that. They thought new immigrants and tourists were no good, but they had quite positive things to say about their Mainland classmates. So while general discrimination is strong, when it comes to the individual person, it could be different,” she said.

Segregation was not the whole story, though. Dr Tian also looked at when and how students from the two groups developed friendships, and found daily routine, again, to be the most important factor. When students go on university trips abroad, for instance, they tend to form close bonds because they are spending a lot of time in close quarters.

“It’s very simple: put them together for a prolonged period of time, preferably in a challenging environment, and they will become close friends, they will fall in love with each other,” she said.

Dr Tian interviewed university administrators who confirmed her observations and who were as puzzled as she had been about why students did not interact. She offered some solutions. Apart from trips abroad together, they should have multiple points of contact during their daily lives, including leisure time and meals. “The other thing is against the current trend of a flexible curriculum, but I found students who have to take more required courses together for a longer period of time, like architecture and translation, have more inter-group interaction,” she said. 

Mainland and local students have different purposes using social media. Mainland students tend to use it for seeking practical information; local students, for networking and entertainment.

Local and Mainland students tend to segregate themselves on university campus mostly because they have different daily life schedules and hence have little opportunity to have cross-group interactions.


Universities around the world have been opening their doors and encouraging local and non-local students to study together and become friends. But despite their best efforts, a barrier lies in the way: these two groups lead very different lives.