Photos: Massive protests in Hong Kong
I played a small role in the Hong Kong event, at which I moderated a panel that featured three Hong Kong citizens discussing the ongoing protest movement. Our China talks usually get about 30 attendees, most of whom are retirees who live nearby. The Hong Kong panel last month was the biggest China-related event I have attended on our campus. Our room was at maximum capacity, as was the overflow room we created for the simulcast. It was clear that mainland-Chinese students and Hong Kong students—two groups whose views on the protests generally diverge—had both mobilized in some way or another.
The event was emotionally charged at the outset. One student, apparently sympathetic to the Chinese government’s position, flipped the panel the middle finger after a panelist made a comment about police brutality against Hong Kong protesters. Several of the audience members from mainland China pressed the panelists on some of the basic realities of the events on the ground. One student asked if there was actually any evidence of police brutality. At times it felt like some students had come to the event just to push the Communist Party line. But it was healthy and helpful to have pro-Beijing views expressed and debated publicly, and juxtaposed with the lived experiences of the Hong Kong protesters. As the panelist Wilfred Chan noted, it is especially important right now to have dialogue between the Hong Kong and mainland-Chinese communities. Western university campuses are among the only spaces where this can occur.
Firms, local governments, civic associations, and individuals can create their own freedom-of-speech operations. Imagine if every NBA player signed a pledge to mention China’s mass detention of Muslims in Xinjiang at press conferences, just for one day. Or if American churches reached out to Chinese pastors to give sermons about the repression of China’s Christian community.
There will be pushback from the Chinese government, and some events might be labeled as an affront to “Chinese sovereignty” or “the feelings of the Chinese people”—standard rhetorical devices of the Chinese Communist Party. University administrators may receive warnings or veiled threats in the short term. But if this sort of interference is met with more campus events, at more universities and institutions, China’s coercion will be rendered ineffective, and its government would have no choice but to back down.
It is important that while we push to preserve freedom of speech on China at Western institutions, we also push to preserve the rights and freedoms of our students from mainland China. Anti-China sentiment in the U.S. is at historic highs, and I am hearing more and more stories of discrimination and hate speech directed at Chinese students and colleagues. Freedom-of-speech operations should be constructed to encourage dialogue and foster norms of critical citizenship, not to demonize Chinese students or their country. Done right, these events can protect Americans’ intellectual territory, and demonstrate the value of our open society.