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At a Distance: UCLA lecturer, students consider effects of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests

(Michelle Song/Daily Bruin)

By Loan-Anh Pham

Feb. 25, 2021 8:03 p.m.

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly referred to Hong Kong as Celine Tsoi's native country. In fact, Hong Kong is a special administrative region.
(Jocelyn Wang/Daily Bruin)
(Jocelyn Wang/Daily Bruin)

This post was updated Feb. 25 at 11:25 p.m.

Bruins come from all around the world, from Colombia to Bangladesh. Because of the pandemic, many international Bruins are currently residing in their home countries. In “At a Distance,” Daily Bruin writers will look at events around the world Bruins care about and give a student’s perspective on the topics.

UCLA students from Hong Kong are facing an uncertain future after two years of political unrest.

“We’re mourning a loss for Hong Kong as we’ve known it for my entire life,” said a fourth-year political science student currently living in Hong Kong who asked to remain anonymous.

Protestors rallied throughout 2019 and 2020 to demand full democracy for Hong Kong, which historically had limited agency under its “one country, two systems” policy with China. Protests came to a halt, however, after a national security law came into effect.

Many protestors have been arrested under the security law, which criminalizes actions deemed a threat to national security since the Chinese government implemented it June 30, 2020.

Hong Kong’s government announced Wednesday that it is allocating $1 billion from its 2021-2022 fiscal year budget to continue crackdowns on the pro-democracy movement. The funds will go toward expanding a national security agency operating outside of Hong Kong’s jurisdiction.

International response has increased in light of the arrests – the United Kingdom began offering pathways to citizenship for some Hong Kong residents Jan. 31. In the United States, lawmakers revived the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act on Feb. 9 to give some fleeing protestors refugee status and introduced a resolution Feb. 19 condemning the Chinese government’s actions against Hong Kong.

The national security law’s sweeping definition has effectively silenced Hong Kongers, the fourth-year political science student said. Under the law, Hong Kong residents in the region and abroad could be charged for perceived dissent against the Chinese government.

“There’s just this atmosphere of fear,” she said. “No one wants to speak out about the protests or try to organize anything new.”

Students, like herself, who are considering careers in Hong Kong are wary of voicing opinions in public and on social media, the fourth-year political science student added.

(Lauren Man/Assistant Photo editor)
(Lauren Man/Assistant Photo editor)

Celine Tsoi, a third-year political science and psychology student currently in Westwood, said the mass arrests have prompted many of Hong Kong’s remaining activists to flee. Journalists and media executives have also been targeted.

The Hong Kong police arrested more than 50 high-profile figures, including activists and lawyers, in early January for crimes including subversion and secession. Joshua Wong, an activist who was at the forefront of the 2019 protests, is serving a prison sentence of 13 1/2 months for unauthorized protesting, while pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai is facing charges of alleged collusion with foreign forces.

Reading the headlines about Hong Kong from a distance felt overwhelming and isolating, Tsoi said.

“You feel helpless because that’s the place you’ve grown up,” Tsoi said. “It was just tough, … watching it all unfold.”

Polarization was one of the 2019 protests’ largest impacts, said Yuen-ching Bellette Lee, a political science lecturer and Hong Kong native. For Lee, it has affected her personal relationships with friends who share different views.

Families in Hong Kong are also breaking apart as ideological divides result in children leaving their homes, Lee said. The younger generation is more inclined to be pro-democracy, while older generations are more likely to be pro-government, Lee said.

Statements from international powers, including the U.S. resolution in February condemning China’s actions against Hong Kong, may not be long-term solutions, but they still lend support, Lee said.

“The resolution that we’ve just seen may not have immediate effects on changing the actions, the measures, the policies of Beijing,” Lee said. “It does lend moral support to the people who have held dissenting views about Beijing and Hong Kong’s governments.”

Hong Kong will survive, but the fight for democracy in Hong Kong can not occur without global action, the fourth-year political science student said.

“Hong Kong may continue its way of life, at least the semblance of its way of life, for the next couple of decades,” she said. “It will take a lot to help achieve or to work towards this ideal. It won’t take the protesters alone. It would take concrete action from other countries like the United States.”

Despite the silence and lack of protests in the aftermath of the national security law, resistance likely still exists among individual ideologies, Lee said.

“On the surface, society becomes quieter and also has become more peaceful, which the government would like to see,” Lee said. “But people’s views, people’s minds, people’s beliefs can’t be easily changed.”

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