On March 18, former Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying delivered the keynote address at the Brown China Summit.
Multiple activists and protestors on and off campus criticized the decision to invite Leung to the summit, citing his controversial tenure in Hong Kong.
Leung led Hong Kong’s government during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, during which protestors occupied areas in the city’s central business district for 79 days.
The protest leaders — some of whom were sentenced to prison terms in 2019 — protested Hong Kong's proposed election reforms, made by officials in Beijing, that would have restricted the selection of candidates for the city’s chief executive election. Police used tear gas and pepper spray on the first day of the protests, leading to the protests’ expansion and the use of umbrellas. Police eventually cleared the protests after 11 weeks.
Leung also faced criticism for allegedly encouraging the council of the University of Hong Kong to prevent an anti-reform law professor from being appointed pro-vice chancellor, a claim which Leung’s office denied.
On the morning of Leung’s virtual speech at the Brown China Summit, a graduate student brought cardboard signs into Stephen Robert ’62 Hall reading “No Leung Chun-ying,” “Providing platform for human rights violator” and “Ordered a crackdown on the 2014 Umbrella Movement,” according to photos reviewed by The Herald.
The Herald spoke to Brown China Summit leadership and pro-Hong Kong activists on and off campus about the keynote invitation. The Herald spoke to the graduate student who entered the building, as well as another graduate student, on the condition of anonymity due to concerns of retaliation. Both graduate students are Chinese citizens.
Autumn Qiu ’25, co-president of the summit, did not respond to requests for comment about the summit’s motivation to invite Leung, the club’s stance on Leung’s treatment of the 2014 protests or activists’ concerns about offering a platform for the former chief executive, noting that the club could not collectively formulate an answer due to travel.
The graduate student who protested expressed “deep concern” about Leung’s invitation in an email to summit leadership on March 15. The email thread, reviewed by The Herald, was verified by Qiu.
“As a concerned student who is themself a Chinese citizen, I urge the summit to reconsider its decision and withdraw the invitation to Leung,” the student wrote. “It is important for academic institutions to uphold the principles of human rights and academic freedom and not provide a platform to those who have violated them.”
The summit leadership team defended the decision in a reply reviewed by The Herald.
In the statement, group leaders characterized the summit as “simply a platform where students and scholars can exchange their ideas politely and thoughtfully,” and acknowledged the student’s concerns, adding that they believed “inviting speakers with diverse views and perspectives is essential to promoting a constructive exchange of ideas and fostering a greater understanding of China's complex political, economic and social landscape.”
The first graduate student, who brought the signs, said he was confronted by event security staff and told to leave the building.
Eventually, event security staff instructed the student to remove the signs, according to Seth McKenzie ’25, a panel director for the summit. McKenzie added that another board member intervened and “calm(ed) things down.”
Both McKenzie and the protestor said that event security wanted to prevent protests from taking place in a building. According to the University’s Student Conduct and Community Standards website, “halting a lecture, debate or any public forum is an unacceptable form of protest."
"‘Halting’ means directly or indirectly preventing a speaker from speaking — even for a brief period of time — or seizing control of a public forum for one's own purposes," the policy continues.
“No members of Brown China Summit participated in any actions violating community members' freedom of speech,” Qiu wrote in an email to The Herald. The protestor opted to display the signs outside the building, which Qiu wrote allowed the event’s audience to “consider diverse opinions before heading into the event.”
The protestor noted that Leung’s invitation sent a “terrible message” about academic freedom and human rights. “If you need people from Hong Kong to talk about its relationship with mainland China, or need someone with this important perspective, why this person?”
The second graduate student told The Herald they were “worried that (Brown China Summit) is giving platforms to people we shouldn't,” adding that they knew friends in Hong Kong who faced repercussions for protests. “Inviting (Leung) is personally affecting me,” they said.
“Our speakers' viewpoints don't represent the viewpoints of Brown China Summit or Brown University, nor do they represent the viewpoint of any member within Brown China Summit,” Qiu wrote.
“None of us can condone what went on in Hong Kong,” McKenzie said. “None of us condone any violation of human rights.”
In response to protesters’ concerns about providing Leung a platform, McKenzie said that the summit wasn’t providing “a grand platform” — noting that 40 students attended the summit in comparison to Leung’s platform he already has as a prominent politician.
McKenzie explained that the summit was “living up to the values of academic freedom” by inviting people who “may not see eye-to-eye with us on freedom.” Platforming speakers with differing views on freedom could have allowed students to “push them” on their views, he added.
“A lot of people were reaching out saying, ‘Why are you having a human rights abuser?’” McKenzie said. “There was no one asking, ‘Can I talk to him? Can I ask him questions?’”
Off-campus pro-Hong Kong activists criticized the summit’s invitation, citing Leung’s handling of 2014 protests and his perceived stance on academic freedom.
Inviting Leung meant giving a stage to “the largest authoritarian dictatorship in the world,” wrote Anna Kwok, executive director of policy advocacy non-profit Hong Kong Democracy Council, in an email to The Herald.
“Leung's speech was the icing on the cake of a broader global propaganda campaign by the (Hong Kong) government,” Kwok wrote. “As one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, Brown University should know better. It's essential to foster genuine policy debates without compromising basic human rights and universal values.”
Kwok added that the University’s “tolerance for CY Leung, the man behind disproportionate police violence during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, challenges the ethical standards academic institutions should adhere to.”
University Spokesperson Brian Clark wrote in an email to The Herald that the University’s administration “does not review or approve speaker invitations — the right to invite and host speakers of their choice is one equally extended to Brown student groups, faculty members and other members of our community. This is affirmed in Brown’s statement on academic freedom, which has been in place since 1966.”
“In addition, inviting a speaker implies no endorsement by the particular student group, academic unit or faculty or staff host of that speaker’s views or activities,” Clark added. “We are a University that routinely hosts debates and discussions where speakers with varying and opposing perspectives confront many of the most difficult issues facing society today.”
Alex Chan, an organizer with activist coalition Students for Hong Kong, said that inviting Leung “did raise many alarms by those of us in the coalition and organizing space.”
“To see him celebrated as a keynote speaker is concerning (and) insulting,” Chan said.
Neil Mehta is a University News section editor covering Institutional Equity and Student Affinity at The Brown Daily Herald. He also serves as the 133rd Editorial Board's design chief. He is a sophomore from Stony Brook, NY studying public health. Outside the office, you can find Neil baking, reading YA fiction and playing Tetris.