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Polarizing protesters?

Even schools in New York are experiencing tensions over the Hong Kong democracy movement

Democracy activist Joshua Wong (left) with two other activists in Hong Kong. Kin Cheung/AP

Polarizing protesters?
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Tensions over the Hong Kong protests have been on a low simmer on New York’s college campuses, where 40 percent of international students are from mainland China, according to the Institute of International Education. Less than 1 percent are from Hong Kong.

New York institutions of higher learning have insisted that they remain places for open debate over the Hong Kong unrest. But human rights activists have long worried about the influence on American schools of campus groups tied to the Chinese government, such as the Chinese Students and Scholars Association and Confucius Institutes.

New York students protest the disruptions and vandalism caused by Hong Kong demonstrators.

New York students protest the disruptions and vandalism caused by Hong Kong demonstrators. South China Morning Post screen capture

On Monday night, in near-freezing rain, a few dozen protesters clashed outside of an at-capacity New York University School of Law event where two prominent Hong Kong protest supporters and a human rights lawyer were speaking. Nathan Law, who was jailed for his role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, spoke alongside his associate Jeffrey Ngo and NYU Law professor Sharon Hom.

The executive director of NYU Law’s Bernstein Institute for Human Rights, Sukti Dhital, introduced the event and noted that the center’s mission is focused on “defending dissent and promoting legal empowerment.”

Despite the tensions outside the venue, police kept the peace. Inside, Law tried to explain why the campus protests in Hong Kong are not so peaceful anymore.

In 2014, “there was so much hope that they could get something out of it,” said Law about the original Umbrella Movement. “Now they are so desperate.”

The previous week, Columbia University canceled a student-organized panel discussion about China’s human rights abuses, prompting the panelists to issue an alarmed statement warning of China’s role in silencing speech on American campuses. But according to Columbia, the only reason the event couldn’t go forward was that the organizing students hadn’t reserved a publicly accessible venue for the talk.

Columbia had said it was open to hosting such an event in the future as long as students properly reserve a venue, and previously this semester it hosted prominent Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong. There have been demonstrations at these events, but nothing shocking. Meanwhile, Chinese students here in New York are hopefully marinating in a society where speech and belief are not repressed.

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Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at [email protected]

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City.



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