Hong Kong political activists Nathan Law and Joshua Wong participated in the Foreign Affairs Symposium’s (FAS) first event of the year in Shriver Hall on Thursday, Feb. 20. The event was moderated by East Asian Studies Lecturer Giovanna Dore.
In the weeks leading up to the event, junior Shizheng Tie launched a Change.org petition criticizing FAS and the Political Science Department, which co-sponsored the event, for inviting Law and Wong and describing them as pro-democracy activists. Tie alleged that the pair was responsible for “brutal violence, massive vandalism, threats and actions of terrorism, as well as far-right-winged nativist and racist hatred toward Chinese Mainlanders.”
Approximately 100 students showed up on the day of the event to protest FAS’ choice of speakers. About another 20 students also came to counter-protest, which junior John Poulos helped to organize.
“The values that Nathan and Joshua are standing up here for today in the event for the values of democracy and free speech are something that I think is very important to uphold,“ Poulos said. “We wanted Nathan and Joshua to know that they are supported here on campus; that we value what they are fighting for; and that we are so glad that their voices can be heard.”
Law and Wong speak at FAS
Law became the youngest-ever member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong in 2016 when the then-23-year-old ran a successful campaign in the Hong Kong Island constituency. Wong serves as the secretary general for Demosisto, an organization founded in 2016 which describes itself as “a pro-democracy youth activist group in Hong Kong.”
The goal of this year’s lineup, “Anthem,” is to capture the diversity of social movements advancing justice and equity around the world. In an email to The News-Letter, the FAS executive board wrote that it believed that Law and Wong’s voices were critical to this theme.
“Our 2020 Symposium intends to encompass a range of currently relevant movements across the world, one of them being the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong,” they wrote. “We believed Joshua and Nathan, whose political careers were rooted in student activism since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, could resonate with that.”
During the event itself, Dore asked Law how he responds to allegations that he condones violent acts. Senior Sheng Zhang, who helped organize protests against Law and Wong at the event, for example, criticized Law for reportedly refusing to condemn an incident in which a man was set on fire earlier this month.
“I do not agree with that kind of violence. I do not agree that you can burn someone alive. But what concerns me is the abuse of state balance. People do not have power in this structure,” Law said. “I think the right question is ‘Why does the government force people into that situation?’ That kind of unproportional use of power is what we should be aware of.”
Law explained that while recent coverage of the protests has been enormous, it is important to recognize that the modern protest tradition in Hong Kong began in the 1990s. That was when China initially pledged that it would respect Hong Kong’s distinct social and economic systems, even as it came back under Chinese sovereignty.
“This promise is still not being met, even after 30 years of democratic movement,” Law said.
This became personally clear for Law, he said, when he lost his seat on the Legislative Council in 2016.
“I was elected with over 50,000 votes, but then they changed the rules to retrospectively unseat me. This symbolized the deterioration of freedom in Hong Kong,” Law said.
Wong further explained the frustrations that the Chinese government caused when attempts to facilitate a dialogue between the opposing sides did not succeed.
“Dialogue led to imprisonment. The outcome is already implied when the government agrees to any kind of dialogue,” Wong said.
Law also explained his feelings about the relations between the people of China and Hong Kong.
“The Chinese Communist Party is manipulating the opinions between people, and they want people pitted against each other. There is lots of unnecessary conflict between HK and China because of the anti-patriot narrative about Hong Kong,” he said.
The audience began with a set of questions regarding the fact that the Hong Kong movement is leaderless.
Law spoke about what conditions would be necessary in order for the movement to require a leader.
“We are not going to invent a leader, since groundwork does not require that style. Protest is not engineered or controlled,” Law said. “We would need more ground to work on if they want a leader, maybe if the government will engage in a meaningful discussion.”
The final question from the audience inquired about when the speakers realized that Hong Kong’s freedom was under threat.
Wong and Law both spoke to the national pride and loyalty to the state that was instilled during their time at pro-Beijing schools in their youth.
Law spoke about a specific instance in one of his classes that struck him.
“I remember Liu Xiaobo receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and my principal denouncing him. Why was he criticized? That triggered my curiosity about what was happening and about his advocacy work,” Law said. “It created a lot of impetus for me to learn about human rights and freedom and to look for truth and social justice.”
Junior David Taylor shared his thoughts on the event, agreeing with Lee.
“This was a great event that FAS put on tonight,” Taylor said. “Encouraging the promotion of democracy worldwide building solidarity with this movement is important.”
Student protesters and counter-protesters
Around 100 Hopkins students gathered outside of Shriver Hall before the event to protest FAS’s decision to host Wong and Law. Demonstrators voiced their opposition to Wong and Law’s involvement in the ongoing Hong Kong protests by chanting slogans, singing and playing footage of violent clashes in Hong Kong.
Roughly 20 student counter-protesters also turned out to show their support for the FAS speakers.
Zhang explained that he takes issue with both the rhetoric and the violence surrounding the Hong Kong protests.
“[Wong and Law] are not only separatists, against the unity of our country. That’s secondary. The primary thing is that I don’t feel those people are in line with the bottom line of human society. Racism and terrorism, this is totally against our society,” he said.
According to Zhang, Law and Wong are responsible for accelerating the violence in Hong Kong.
“They should not have invited those people,“ he said. “If [Law and Wong] have this idea that [they] don’t denounce all the violence, don’t denounce terrorism, don’t denounce racism, then there’s nothing to talk about.”
Graduate student Tang Jingnie attended the event in order to protest the speakers. He explained his position in an interview with The News-Letter.
“As a Chinese student, I think that the fact that [Wong and Law] are protesting and speaking of freeing Hong Kong is totally ridiculous. Hong Kong is always part of China. They are not fighting for freedom, they are using freedom to be terrorists,” Tang said.
Freshman Jonas Zhai, another organizer, added that he hoped the demonstration against Wong and Law would convince the University to take the protesters’ opinions into account more seriously.
“There are a lot of Chinese people in this school, so by inviting those two people, who are considered criminals, the school is really not caring about our feelings at this point,” he said. “We want to show that we do care about political issues and we are involved in the community, so they can no longer ignore our feelings or our voice anymore.”
Freshman Leo Xie, who is from a city next to Hong Kong, also took part in the protest. He, too, took issue with the Hong Kong protesters’ means of resistance.
“We support peace. We hate violence. We don’t think violence should get involved in any kind of movement, no matter what is the purpose of it,” he said. “I drove to Hong Kong when the protests began, and because I am a mainlander, the protesters yelled at me, said dirty words to me, and committed acts of violence against me and my friends. So I don’t think it’s an appropriate form of protest.”
Junior John Poulos helped plan the counter-demonstration in support of Wong and Law. He explained that after reading the Change.org petition, he and a group of friends decided to show up to advocate not only for the speakers but also for the values underlying the Hong Kong protest.
“We decided... not necessarily in the spirit of counter-protesting but in the spirit of free speech and the spirit of democracy, to come and voice how important this is to us that they are able to come and speak,” Poulos said.
Senior Alex Borovoy said that he was inspired to help organize the counter-protest after reading the Change.org petition. He pointed specifically to the petition’s use of the words “terrorist” and “racist” to describe Wong and Law.
Borovoy added that the petition also focused primarily on violence incited by the Hong Kong protesters, rather than the police.
“There’s also this idea that the Hong Kongers are the only ones inciting violence, which is untrue. There are countless reports and videos showing Hong Kong police beating protesters,” he said. “We see this power dynamic where mainland China has so much legal and military authority over Hong Kong. So to really focus on the violence of the protesters really misconstrues the reality of what’s going on there.”
Junior Zach Wheeler, who participated in the demonstration in support of Wong and Law, explained his decision to turn out.
“Obviously there’s a lot of people on the Hopkins campus who support the Hong Kong movement,” he said. “It’s very important for them to be heard.”
Poulos addressed the views of the students protesting the event, acknowledging that some of the Hong Kong protests have been violent.
However, he believes the FAS protesters mischaracterized the nature of the Umbrella Movement by failing to mention police brutality in response to the Hong Kong protests.
“The way that the Hong Kong police has been acting has been extremely brutal,” he said. “We have one sign tonight that documented the 10,000 rubber bullets that have been fired during the course of the Hong Kong protests and the countless canisters of teargas that have been thrown at protesters.”
Senior Kevin Kwok, a Hong Kong resident, added that he believes international support for the Hong Kong protests is important because it can put pressure on China to meet some of the protesters’ demands.
Kwok specifically praised U.S. figures like Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell for speaking out in support of the protesters.
“We hope that all the other countries will follow U.S. suit and keep on pressuring China, even if we know that full democracy, full release of political opponents, a full recantation of calling this movement a riot, a whole apology or an independent investigation into police brutality, next day or next week — we don’t see that,” Kwok said. “All we’re hoping is that we can accelerate this process.”
Freshman Melody Lei attended Wong and Law’s talk after visiting Hong Kong last year and seeing the aftermath of the protests.
While she did not necessarily agree with the students protesting the event, she appreciated how peaceful their demonstration was.
“What I see is a little bit of unreason in their approach, but I mean I do like the fact that they’re coming out here,” she said. “Yes, we have very different and polarizing views, but everyone was pretty much pretty peaceful, so that was really cool to see.”
In an interview with The News-Letter, sophomore and FAS Director of Programming Ryan Ebrahimy commented on the turnout of the event.
“Having a strong showing for both the protesters and the counter-protesters indicates FAS’s commitment to free dialogue,” Ebrahimy said. “We’re happy that people were able to make it out to this event and express their opinions, regardless of how they feel about having Nathan Law and Joshua Wong on campus.”