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Panel talks Hong Kong protests, changes in Asia’s political climate

UCLA faculty and experts discussed the protests in Hong Kong at an event at the School of Law on Monday. The protests began around the end of March 2019 over a proposed bill that would have allowed Hong Kong to extradite criminal suspects to countries with which it does not have extradition agreements. (Alex Driscoll/Daily Bruin)

By Elizabeth Sherwood

Feb. 5, 2020 12:17 a.m.

The recent protests in Hong Kong have sparked an irrevocable shift in its political climate, UCLA faculty and other experts said at a panel Monday.

The UCLA International Institute, which promotes global research and study, hosted an open panel with a reporter and professors of law, history and political science at the UCLA School of Law to discuss the ongoing protests in Hong Kong, and how they reflect crucial changes in Asia’s political climate.

The government of Hong Kong proposed a bill in February 2019 that would let Hong Kong extradite criminal suspects to countries with which it does not have a formal extradition agreement, such as mainland China. Many in Hong Kong viewed the bill as a direct threat to the autonomy of Hong Kong from China, and as a result, began protesting in March 2019.

Alex Wang, a law professor at UCLA, said he organized Monday’s panel in hopes of sparking a discussion about the basis of the protests and allowing the speakers to answer pressing questions.

“We’re here to unpack the protests, and the panelists are here to help explain what’s going on,” Wang said. “We hope to answer questions such as: What is driving this intense public protesting, and how do these events play into the implications of China’s rising influence in the world?”

Yuen-ching Bellette Lee, a political science lecturer and a Hong Kong native, said police brutality is a major reason why the protests have yet to cease. She said many of her friends in Hong Kong have shared stories of police entering homes in the middle of the night to arrest citizens involved in the protests.

She added that the police are also confiscating citizens’ cell phones and looking in chat rooms for the names of other individuals involved. So far, more than 7,000 citizens have been arrested, Lee said.

“Despite all the actions of the police, none have been prosecuted,” Lee said. “The rule of law has been gradually eroded.”

Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a professor of history at UC Irvine and expert on Chinese protest movements, also said police brutality in Hong Kong has escalated the frustrations of the protesters to new levels.

“Not a single case has been held against police officers, despite evidence of brutality shown very clearly on video,” Wasserstrom said. “This is the single factor that has kept things boiling the longest.”

Lee said the Chinese government has blamed Hong Kong’s education system for the protests.

“(Chinese government officials think) the school curriculum should educate people more in line with the Chinese way of thinking, so students will be more patriotic,” Lee said.

Hong Kong’s government currently regulates mandatory social studies classes in Hong Kong high schools, in which teachers are legally required to answer “I don’t know” to any questions from students about the protests, Lee said.

China’s ever-increasing political influence over Hong Kong has been a huge point of contention for protesters, Wasserstrom said.

“(A few years ago, Hong Kong had) a clear separation of powers, an independent press and the ability to challenge unjust officials,” Wasserstrom said. “(Now) China has moved in a tightening direction.”

Protests may rage on until Hong Kong reaches a satisfactory level of independence, but this fight will not be easy under China’s influence, Wasserstrom said.

Michael Forsythe, a reporter for The New York Times, witnessed Hong Kong’s radical transformation firsthand in recent years while working at The New York Times’ Hong Kong office.

Forsythe said the protests have created a politicization that rivals that of any other country in the world.

“People now care so deeply about their freedoms and their homes,” Forsythe said. “And this is shown in the results of district elections. Democratic forces dominate pro-Beijing forces.”

However, China’s National People’s Congress has created a very one-sided electoral system, under which only pro-Beijing people have a chance to run to be a leader, Forsythe said.

Students in the audience said the panelists’ unique perspectives effectively set the stage for the protests and helped them analyze the issues at hand in Hong Kong from a deep political point of view.

Alicia Rose, a law student at UCLA, said she enjoyed the panelists’ discussion from both a legal and a more personal standpoint. She said she was intrigued by the idea that police officers in Hong Kong appeared to be exempt from the laws of the city.

“I was interested in hearing the different perspectives of the panel,” Rose said. “There was a question on the rule of law, and that was an interesting question to me as I’m here studying law. I’m also a former journalist, so I was interested in hearing the perspective on the ground.”

Adam Barsch, a public policy graduate student, said he appreciated the panelists’ extensive knowledge of the events that occurred between Hong Kong and China in the years leading up to the protests.

“I really appreciated the rundown of the recent history of the situation and the legislative landmarks that had marked Hong Kong’s struggle with mainland China,” Barsch said.

Barsch added that he especially valued Lee’s perspective on the protests.

“I thought she had a lot of interesting insight because of her expertise, as well as a lot of personal stories she could draw on about some people she knew who are still in Hong Kong.”

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Elizabeth Sherwood | Assistant News editor
Sherwood is the 2020-2021 Assistant News Editor for the City & Crime beat. She was previously a contributor for National News and Higher Education. She is a second year political science and communications student and digital humanities minor at UCLA.
Sherwood is the 2020-2021 Assistant News Editor for the City & Crime beat. She was previously a contributor for National News and Higher Education. She is a second year political science and communications student and digital humanities minor at UCLA.
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