The UChicago Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) recently expressed its discontent with and opposition to the invitation of Nathan Law, a self-exiled Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, to be a guest speaker at the Harris School of Public Policy. Law started out as a participant in the HK dock strikes and and became a student leader in the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, calling for true democratic elections. In 2016, he was elected to the Hong Kong Legislative Council but was subsequently disqualified after an oath-taking controversy. He left Hong Kong in 2020 after the imposition of the national security law (NSL) on Hong Kong, which has since been used to jail nearly all of Hong Kong’s democratic opposition politicians indefinitely for such outrageous offenses as indiscriminately opposing the government budget.
By escaping such a draconian system and speaking out about the lack of democracy in Hong Kong, Law is at the center of an incredibly important issue of global political development, which has relevance both in and out of academia. Law has openly shared his experiences and advice at numerous universities. He was recently named a Pritzker Fellow at the University of Chicago’s Institute of Politics. And I want to emphasize again: He was previously elected by the people of Hong Kong to be a legislator. He’s certainly not a random guy with violently extremist views.
Yet the CSSA suggests without any evidence that Law should not be invited as a guest speaker at the Harris School because he “glorifies violence” and his presence “is extremely hurtful.” The CSSA claims to represent the views of Chinese students and scholars at the University. Its position is contrary to the values of open inquiry at the University and does not represent my views as informed by my Chinese culture and ethnic experience. Worse, by using false information to oppose Law’s ability to speak on campus, the CSSA plays into systems of power that continue to suppress the Hong Kong people through police brutality and state violence.
Nathan Law is branded as a “convicted criminal” and his invitation is described as akin to inviting a “terrorist” onto campus. These are loaded and coded words that legitimize the authoritarian criminal justice system of both mainland China and the suppressive use of the Hong Kong NSL against a wide range of labor and social activists in Hong Kong. Law’s “criminal conviction” was for “unlawful assembly” in a public square during the Hong Kong Occupy Central movement, which was overwhelmingly peaceful. I have no idea why Nathan Law is compared to a “terrorist” because he was never convicted of terrorism. He fled from the national security law used to jail all political opponents in Hong Kong.
Nathan Law is described as a person who “glorified violence.” He has done no such thing. The organization that he helped build—Demosistō—was a peaceful pro-democracy political party, one of many that was targeted by the national security law. The CSSA paints opposition activists with the same broad brush as many view protesters of police brutality here—it claims they are somehow all terrorists and violent criminals just because there were unaffiliated factions of violence or rioting. I was in Hong Kong during June 2019, right at the start of the anti–extradition bill movement. I saw endless crowds of people marching peacefully. When police and protesters escalated their tactics through the subsequent months, Hong Kongers I talked to understood, just as Martin Luther King Jr. did, that “riots are the language of the unheard” and that the best way to prevent violence is to address the real frustrations and injustices that fuel violence rather than jail dissidents. The CSSA, by standing on the narrative of law and order, does a disservice to victims of police violence in Hong Kong.
The CSSA describes Law’s invitation as contributing to the “trauma of discrimination.” Perhaps I can only speak for myself, but I find it absurd to say that Law’s activism has reinforced anti-Asian discrimination in this country. The tragic violence against Asian Americans and the continued discrimination is deep and historical. But this is completely orthogonal to the views of Nathan Law on Hong Kong’s democratic development.
The truth is that the CSSA has got it all backwards. Law is not the problem—it is the system he is fighting against that is the problem. Law is not violent—it is the police and pro-police gangs who brutalized protestors at Yuen Long and Prince Edward Station who are violent. Law is not a terrorist—it is the system which disappears Hong Kong booksellers and jails nearly all Hong Kong democracy activists that is terrorizing. Law has not caused me any racial trauma—it is a deeply unpopular government which uses the tools of police power to harass ethnic minorities in Hong Kong that causes deep and lasting trauma for others. Again and again, the CSSA stands on the wrong side of justice.
In short, the CSSA’s statement is based on falsehoods about Nathan Law. It blindly accepts flawed criminal justice narratives against democratic dissent and ignores UChicago’s values of democratic engagement, open inquiry, and impactful change. I hope this statement ignites more discussion about the continued suppression of the Hong Kong people and the gap between reality and their democratic hopes.
The Chinese Students and Scholars Association does not speak for me.
The author is an alum of the College and has requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation under the Hong Kong national security law.