Berkeley Forum panelists discuss pandemic’s impact on Hong Kong protests

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The Berkeley Forum hosted a virtual panel Thursday with five experts on the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

Four academics from around the country and activist Joshua Wong joined Berkeley Forum members for the discussion on Facebook Live. When preparations began for the discussion in the fall, the group planned to include pro-democracy politician Au Nok-hin on the panel, according to Berkeley Forum spokesperson Ian Wong.

Au was unable to attend as he was one of 15 individuals that Hong Kong police arrested April 18. Ian Wong said these arrests generated even more interest in the discussion among the UC Berkeley community and groups across the U.S.

“Unfortunately, the recent arrests included one of our original panelists, Au Nok Hin, who had to withdraw from the event to handle the situation,” Ian Wong said in an email.

At the event’s start, Ian Wong introduced the panelists and led a discussion that incorporated audience questions submitted via Google Forms. 

The coronavirus’ impact on the pro-democracy movement dominated much of the conversation. UC Irvine history professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom began by acknowledging a pattern of China seemingly “tightening” its control of Hong Kong in recent years in response to protests that have only increased in scale over time. He said the recent arrests went beyond the scope of Beijing’s usual response due, in part, to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Now, what we’re seeing is Beijing taking advantage of a distracted world and fears of mass gatherings due to the pandemic to tighten the screws very quickly,” Wasserstrom alleged during the event.

Martin Lee — founder of the United Democrats of Hong Kong, a former liberal political party in the region — was also among the 15 pro-democracy politicians arrested. University of Notre Dame associate professor of political science Victoria Hui said during the event that Lee was once called the “father” of the pro-democracy movement but is now referred to as its “grandfather.” Joshua Wong is partially responsible for this, she said, since he has become one of the movement’s new faces.

Joshua Wong described the movement as “leaderless,” however, adding that it does not have “top-down commands” for those who decide to protest.

“Some people have been using the term ‘leaderful,’ ” Hui said in response during the event. “In a way, that means everyone — every participant is himself, or herself, a leader.”

Joshua Wong said he thought Lee’s arrest was a “huge mistake.” He added that while the media spotlight was off Hong Kong as the coronavirus traveled across the world, Lee’s arrest brought it back.

Hui and Joshua Wong also noted that these arrests may encourage unity among the Hong Kong population, as citizens remain socially distant but collectively observant.

“When moderates are also completely sidelined, you’re going to just encourage radicalization of the movement,” Hui said during the event.

Contact Rachel Barber at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @rachelbarber_.