GW Students and Faculty Reflect on Hong Kong Protests

Members of the GW community said tension in the city was visible during a visit just weeks before the demonstrations began

Global Perspective Residencies: Hong Kong
Anson Chan, Hong Kong’s former chief secretary, spoke with GW students visiting the city in May as part of GSPM’s Global Perspective Residencies program. (Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Devlin-Ruelle)
October 04, 2019

By Tatyana Hopkins

In Hong Kong, the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China was marked with unprecedented violence—including the first police shooting of a demonstrator—in the nearly four months of ongoing protests.

The escalation of unrest in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory came just months after a group of students from the George Washington University Graduate School of Political Management visited the city as part of the school’s Global Perspective Residencies program, a course that aims to give students a firsthand opportunity to identify political challenges and opportunities in key cities around the world.

Tens of thousands of residents defied a police ban Tuesday and took to the streets to form one of Hong Kong’s largest demonstrations since the conflict began in June. The protesters’ “day of mourning” aimed to upstage the central government’s elaborate celebrations in Beijing of the milestone anniversary of Communist rule in China.

Anticipation of a confrontation in Hong Kong on the anniversary had been building in recent weeks.

In May, the GW students who visited Hong Kong and Beijing learned about the growing tensions leading up to the anniversary from senior leaders in Chinese business, politics and advocacy in both cities, including Hong Kong’s former No. 2 official, former chief secretary Anson Chan.

Jeremiah Devlin-Ruelle, a second-year graduate student studying political management with a concentration in global politics, was one of 14 students on the Global Perspective residency.

He said the political and business leaders the group spoke to in China reported that the central government in Beijing had been “cracking down” on “voices of dissent” even before the protests began.

“There was a time where people could speak out against the central party, and there wouldn’t be major consequences, but because of the big anniversary coming up this year, they had been cracking down on anyone speaking out,” Mr. Devlin-Ruelle said. “This was a pretty big year—70 years since the founding of the People’s Republic—and the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t want anything that will rattle or cause a disturbance of those celebrations.”

Demonstrations began in early June when more than 1 million Hong Kong residents opposed an extradition bill that would have allowed local authorities to extradite suspected criminals to mainland China. The bill was retracted by the city’s leader Carrie Lam in September.

Natalia Dinello, director of the Global Residencies program at GW, said students learned about the extradition bill before going to Hong Kong and Beijing as part of pre-departure coursework on China’s overall political and economic ecosystem.

Noting the protestors’ new demands, which call for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, among other things, she said the demonstrations about the extradition bill have morphed into broader pro-democracy aspirations, which could be sensed when her class visited China.

“[The tension] was not so tangible, but it was in the back of your mind that something could explode,” Dr. Dinello said. “There were references to it, particularly in Hong Kong. Hong Kong certainly realized these challenges before they spilled over.”

As part of the three-credit Global Residencies course, students are asked to write a reflection essay analyzing best, intermediate and worst-case scenarios for an economic or political issue they studied in-country.

Dr. Dinello said that many of her “democratically-minded” students’ scenarios focused on human rights, including women’s rights and the Chinese Social Credit System, predicting that in a best-case scenario Chinese citizens would demand more democracy in mainland China and get it. 

As for the tensions in Hong Kong, Dr. Dinello offered a similar analysis: “The best-case scenario, here, would be consistent with what the young protestors are demanding—universal suffrage and respect of human rights and freedoms.”

Although Hong Kong’s constitution guaranteed universal suffrage in the election of its chief executive and legislators, lawmakers in Beijing have changed the terms so they can oversee the candidates running and limit voting to only about 1,200 residents in Hong Kong, most of whom belong to the business community.

She said this period will be a “big test” for autonomy in Hong Kong that could have a ripple effect throughout the country and inspire a struggle for more democracy in China.

“More democracy in Hong Kong could potentially influence Beijing,” Dr. Dinello said. “But this seems to be a long-term perspective.”

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