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As Hong Kong Crisis Worsens, Divided NYC Protesters Converge At NYU Event

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As a violent crackdown on pro-democracy student protesters intensifies, roughly 200 student demonstrators from opposing sides of the political divide gathered Monday night in the cold rain outside New York University.

The dueling rallies were prompted by a discussion panel taking place the same evening at NYU Law School that was titled “Human Rights in Hong Kong.” The event, which could only accommodate roughly 150 people, garnered 700 RSVPs, and drew angry accusations from pro-Beijing students that they were intentionally being shut out.

“We want the old Hong Kong back,” said Jingjie Li, a 23-year-old Ph.D. student at NYU studying neuroscience. Li, who is from Xi’an, a city in northwest China, was joined by dozens of other mainland Chinese students who see the pro-democracy protesters as committing acts of senseless violence and destruction.

The demonstrations in New York come at particularly tense moment in Hong Kong crisis that has shaken and, at times, paralyzed China‘s most important economic hub. Police have currently surrounded Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where hundreds of protesters have barricaded themselves for days in defiance of the government. For nearly six months, Hong Kong residents have been clashing with the government over what they view as an increasing encroachment by Chinese leaders in Beijing on their political freedoms. The city, although part of China, operates under its own “mini-Constitution” that allows freedom of the press, assembly, and religious beliefs, among other rights. Pro-Beijing advocates have nonetheless argued that Hong Kong is part of China.

“These problems have existed for a long, long time,” explained Howard Wong, 26, a Hong Kong native and a graduate student at Baruch College who attended the protest. “It’s not on a whim that people are taking to the streets.”

The debate has deepened the fissures within the Chinese community, which reflect a broad geographical makeup and often dueling political views. Last week, a canceled panel at Columbia University on human rights violations in China drew condemnations from scholars and human rights activists who pointed to protests from the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, which has been accused of having ties to China. The event, whose organizers included NYU and Columbia’s chapters of Amnesty International, had originally been scheduled at NYU but due to lack of space organizers sought to move it to Columbia.

A Columbia spokesperson told Gothamist that organizers failed to follow university protocol for reserving a room and holding events.

“Those procedures apply uniformly to all of our many student groups,” the spokesperson said. “Should Columbia’s chapter of Amnesty International want to reschedule the event, the proposed panel discussion will be welcomed at Columbia once the required procedures are met.”

In September, a panel discussion at Columbia University featuring two prominent Hong Kong activists also drew pro-Beijing protesters.

Within the international student community, New York has an especially large mainland Chinese population. According to Open Doors, a group that tracks international students, Chinese students last year numbered over 43,000, or 42.2 percent of the total 102,103 international students in the New York metropolitan area.

By comparison, there just over 600 international students from Hong Kong.

Still, as one of the first wave of Chinese immigrants, Hong Kong natives and those with ties to the city are a major and highly influential community in the city. The group New Yorkers Supporting Hong Kong, or NY4HK, has sponsored and taken part in many well-attended rallies, including one at the Barclays Center last month to protest the NBA’s clumsy handling of the issue.

“We might not be as minuscule as the statistics reflect,” said Alexandra C., an NYU undergraduate organizer with the Hong Kong Student Advocacy Group, which convened Monday night’s rally.

She acknowledged, however, that the large mainland Chinese presence at the university made it difficult for Hong Kong natives to express their political beliefs. “A lot of misconceptions have guided the conversation if there is a conversation at all,” she said.

On the pro-Beijing side, Steven Mao, an NYU freshman majoring in history and philosophy, marshaled activists in what was labeled an “anti-violence” protest. He said he used WeChat to mobilize students from the area after learning about the NYU event, which included Nathan Law, an outspoken Hong Kong activist.

“I feared the panel would be one-sided,” he said, in between attempts to rouse the protesters to chant and interviews with Chinese television outlets.

Hong Kong protesters have accused their mainland Chinese counterparts of being brainwashed by the Communist Party, an assertion Mao flatly objected. A native of mainland China, Mao said he moved to Hong Kong, where he maintains a permanent residency status. He said he came to the U.S. when he was in high school. If anything, he was as influenced by American propaganda as that of China, he said at one point.

From the outset, the NYPD kept a watchful eye on the two camps of protesters, who crowded a busy sidewalk on Sullivan Street and drew scores of onlookers.

“At least they are peaceful,” remarked Anna Cheung, an organizer with NY4HK.

Inside the NYU Law School event, organizers commended the attendees on their respectful dialogue, but there were some outbursts. Towards the end, several people could be heard challenging the panelists. “You’re liars,” said one woman. “Why do you attack innocent people?”

Outside, Ziyi Zhang, 23, angrily denounced the Hong Kong protesters for ruining what she called “an amazing city.” She said those on the other side “don’t want to talk to us.”

Nonetheless, she said she did not object to NYU hosting the panel.

“We’re happy that the school can listen to different voices,” she said. “But we think we have the right to speak.”

UPDATE: The story has been updated to include a new statement from a Columbia University spokesperson.



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