The day Hong Kong rebelled, millions left the confort of their homes and went out covering the rainy and gray streets with umbrellas that colored one of the biggest cities in the world.
The protesters were mostly students, claiming freedom through a demonstration against the loss of civil rights, as Mainland China tried to impose a reform on the electoral system. For almost three months, they stayed still on the streets, broadcasting the demonstrations worldwide, so everyone knew how they fought for freedom. It was the year 2014 and Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the movement, was only 17 years old, but became an international symbol for dissent around the world.
He spent several months in jail, but that didn’t stop his activism. In 2019 Joshua (now 23 years old and a prominent university student) was imprisoned again for some days, as the sprout of a new revolution began to appear.
The extradition bill proposed by the puppet leaders of the Chinese Government in Hong Kong, turned on the alert that the citizens of the “second system” had feared for many years. Over the first days, around two out of seven million inhabitants went out to the streets to protest. This law meant, according to the people, that China would be able to legally take dissidents to its jurisdiction and silence any attempt to undercover the violations that Mainland has commited. But police repression started to get more and more violent, and people realized that, if they didn’t keep aiming for their civil rights, China would strike back against them. They needed to put the world’s eyes again on what was happening in the city. Some days ago, they took over the airport, stoping around 1000 flights and things turned violent. No one can know what will happen next, but consequences might shift the future of one of the most powerful places on earth.
Joshua, who’s still on the streets, does not loose any hope, and he won’t give up on his cause. “Hong Kong is the place where I was born, where I live and that I love. So I hope to try harder to make a difference. Because it shouldn’t be under the suppression of Beijing”, he says, quickly and without any hesitations. But the fact is, Hong Kong is slowly sinking into mainland “waters”.
On November 2019, two things happened. 1st, the pro–democrats got an astonishing amount of seats at the District Councils elections, winning in 17 out of 18 districts and rising to 388 representatives. The democracy supporters also captured 117 District Council subsector seats, while Pro-Beijing parties and independents won only 62 seats, a loss of more than 242.
2nd, the US Congress passed a bill titled the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019” in order to support the protesters and push for a democratic exit to this conflict. This measure has been polemic, as China has repeatedly denounced that such acts interfere with Chinese sovereignty over their strategic territories. By the time this Interview is being published, the future of the Special Administration Zone (SAZ) remains uncertain.
1. THE RISE OF THE UMBRELLAS
Joshua, how did you get involved in the Umbrella Revolution?
Joshua Wong (JW): We organized the umbrella revolution as a nonviolent civil disobedience movement to show that we had the right to freely elect the leader of our city. And that’s the reason why we occupied the streets for more than two months. We thought that China should respect the voice of people.
How did it get streamed on reddit? Because for us in the west, and specially for the ones that had been in HK, it was outstanding, we felt like we were part of it.
So many people came to the streets during the Umbrella Revolution that somehow it got streamed and it was spread around the world. It let people see what was happening in Hong Kong, how China treats us.
For us, in Hong Kong, it let people realize that we are lucky, because we don’t have the Great Firewall and internet censorship by the Chinese government, and while we still have a free flow of information, it’s a must for us to uphold it and to show that Hong Kong is a place where people can fight for Human Rights and Freedom. We hope to use this advantage to try our best and to show the world what is happening in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan, Tibet, or other countries in southeast Asia, to confront the uprising of the China model as a universal power.
You were a potencial candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018. Do you think the Nobel prize organization has stepped back from nominating any other Chinese dissident after China partially closed their relations with Norway once the peace prize was granted to Liu Xiaobo?
I believe the case of Liu Xiaobo is different from ours in Hong Kong. Even if we were in jail, the price we paid was a small piece of cake compared to him.
I would say I hope more Chinese dissidents, especially those living under the suppression of Beijing, can be nominated for the Nobel peace price, to make people know that under the uprise of the China model we should not keep silence. That’s true compromise to human rights.
(…)the Umbrella movement is the second largest movement to show the violation of Human Rights in China”
Don’t you think the 1989 mobilization in Tiananmen is comparable to what happened in Hong Kong in 2014?
The scale is not comparable to the Tiananmen Square, but the Umbrella movement is the second largest movement to show the violation of Human Rights in China, and to show that Hong Kong people always stand in the front line to confront Beijing.
You prefer pacific protests, but sometimes you appeal to civil disobedience. Why do you think this is necessary?
The democracy movement in Hong Kong has continued for more than three decades already, and we hope to make people realize that since we have to confront the biggest authoritarian regime in the world, it’s kind of a long time battle.
But if we show no regrets and continue to sacrifice, one day we will make a change. For example, during the transition of sovereignty in 1997, no one would have predicted that the Umbrella Movement, or the current demonstrations within the city, would happen.
How were you able to you relate the cases of Taiwan and the Hong Kong?
Today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan. We both have to face the co.optation strategy of Beijing. So, no matter if the Sunflower movement occupies the Parliament in Taiwan or the Umbrella Movement occupies the streets in Hong Kong, they both show that we are strongly aware of how Beijing looks forward to reducing the uniqueness and autonomy of these two places.
Even if political prosecutions are becoming more common for dissidents, we still hope to stand here and defend our democratic rights. When I say today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan, is because I wish in the future Hong Kong will be able to have a democracy and we, someday, will be able to say: Today Hong Kong, tomorrow China, to have full democratization.
2. China’s power over the world
Mainland’s sharp power and diplomacy strategy is driving the world by its side. How can it damage democracy?
Sharp Power is the new tactic used by Beijing and Mainland to install the “One belt one road” policy across the world.
Should the world trust China? Well, let’s look at the experience of Hong Hong: China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in United Kingdom and promised that Hong Kong would be an exceptional area, and they would have One Country Two Systems. Less than 20 years later, China has already eroded the place to be One Country and One and a Half Systems.
So, if China ignored what it promised in the international treaty that was registered in the United Nations, how can we trust that China will respect an agreement signed with any country?
Even countries in Europe. So the One Belt One Road policy is just a way to spread the authoritarian repression around the world and to ignore human rights. We just hope people will realize that.
It seems Hong Kong is really far away from the country they live in, but when this international financial hub has been eroded to be just another city under the rule of the Chinese government, they can do it anywhere.
If the Beijing regime claims that in the future there won’t be Hong Kong People, there will only be Greater Bay Area people, it just shows that signing an international treaty doesn’t matter to them, it cannot be trusted at all.
How can Hong Kong show itself to the world, with such dominant power like China unleashing its sharp power over the world?
The image of Hong Kong abroad has always been manipulated and controlled by Beijing authorities. Yes, people recognize that Hong Kong has certain advantages as an international financial city, or as a place where people know kung fu, etc… with Bruce Lee and Jacky Chan. But we also would like to tell the world that Hong Kong is a city with protests, is the place where people search for the freedom they deserve and they sacrifice for that. They stand in the frontline to confront Beijing authorities. That’s why it is not only a financial city but also a protest city, where we talk about the culture of Hong Kong eroded by Beijing.
Do you think China has embraced the rivalry between Mainland and Hong Kong people as a propaganda tool to weaken Hong Kong’s international image?
This kind of propaganda from Beijing has become more common in recent years, because in the era of Hu Jintao or Jiang Zemin it seemed that they still tried a more moderate approach to civil society.
But after the leadership of Xi Jinping, who passed from president to emperor, it seems now that there won’t be any civil society expressions existing in China anymore, all information is centralized. People around the world must be aware that propaganda is spread in kind of media platform, directly from the regime.
Do you think the Chinese laws for censorship and controlling the population through social credit will have an effect on people’s thinking and personal development?
The Social Credit System applied by the government in China makes us remember what are China’s true intentions are. Luckily, we still have free flow of information and we don’t have this kind of censorship and control.
Shanghai, Fujian and some other big cities in Mainland have challenged Hong Kong’s economic leadership in the region. Will they overcome Hong Kong in terms of trade and relevance? And, ¿What will Hong Kong do then?
Rule of law and judicial independence are the exceptions that can’t be eroded by Beijing, and even with this kind of economic development of Shanghai, they are still far away from Hong Kong in terms of transparency and imbalance of the counter-trade agreements.
So we hope people realize that when Hong Kong is separated as a different economic entity, a trade war between the US and China will not damage Hong Kong as much. So they have to realize that when they erode the institutions of Hong Kong, it doesn’t just affect people in the city, it also affects the interests of Beijing.
3. The threatening extradition law
Author: The Hong Kong conflict has been tagged as bigger and more violent than its predecessor. Among many measures pushed by Beijing, the central government has encouraged Pro-China and Chinese citizens to criticize and strike against the demonstrators across the streets. It even allowed them to hit protesters with sticks, iron bars or baseball bats. Meanwhile, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief executive and main representative, who is close to Beijing’s authorities and Xi Jinping, has lost her ability to appeal to citizens and people’s trust. The movement has been labeled by Mainland as aggressive and “tending to terrorism”. Also, Chinese media has portrayed the protesters as childish, rebellious and upstart, centered rather in its hate for Chinese people rather than in the opportunities of mutual collaboration.
Can you explain what are the consequences of the extradition law for Hong Kong dissidents and regular citizens?
If the government succeeds in passing this law, Beijing will be able to extradite anyone in Hong Kong to Mainland China. We are strongly aware of it and we should prevent it. We shall oppose it and it is a must to urge the government to withdraw this extradition law proposal. That is why millions came to the streets and demanded “no extradition to China”. Because we have no chance to have a fair trial under the China judicial system.
Are you afraid of this law?
JW: Is hard for us to ensure our personal safety, no matter if the extradition law is passed or not. After the publisher Lam Wing-kee incident, the Hong Kong based publisher who was physically kidnapped on a train and delivered to Mainland China, it was made clear for us that we weren’t safe and that it will be hard for us to ensure our safety. But no matter what, we will still try our best to defend our ideas and fight against it.
Author:In the year 2015, booksellers settled in Hong Kong started to disappear, among them: five staff of Causeway Bay Books lead by Lam Wing-kee. It was later known that they were kidnapped by Chinese authorities, as some of them smuggled forbidden books to Mainland or published content against the central government. According to Joshua, this events gave hongkongnese people a warning: the Chinese Government will find a way to violate or dodge the agreements they signed.
Would you run away from Hong Kong if necessary?
I have no plans involving asking for political asylum at all. I hope I can stay in Hong Kong and contribute here.
Is this movement bigger than the 2014 one?
In 2014 we had 200,000 people in the streets and now we had up to 2 million people within a demonstration. It shows the unity of Hong Kong people.
China has portrayed the movement as extremely violent and even a terrorist attempt. What are your views on this?
Being blamed by Beijing is not surprising from an authoritarian rule, but our demands are crystal clear. We demand free elections and to put an end to police brutality.
Do you think that some protesters have become too violent?
Violence has happened, clashes have happened. Force is used by protesters but it really depends on which weapons does the police use.
What is Carrie Lam’s role now? Do the demonstrators want her out?
Free elections is the only way out.
Do you think China’s government is trying to raise fear within the people of Hong Kong?
China’s authoritarian rulers will obviously react against us, even if we act peacefully. But they have done things such as moving their army to the border. It was aimed to threat both us and the international financial centre we live in.
What is people’s main fear?
China promised to let Hong Kong people live by the rule of one country and two systems, but now it has decayed into one country, one and a half systems. If Beijing doesn’t comply with the promise they made, people are just going to have more reasons to go to the streets.
Do people fear that, if they stop protesting, China is going to retaliate against them?
It doesn’t matter if the movement continues or not, they are going to keep suppressing Hong Kong people.
And do you think this movement could end like the Tiananmen one ended 30 years ago?
We cannot expect Xi Jinping to act rationally and we need to prevent that.
4. The life of the dissident and cultural identity
Author:Being a Hong Kong citizen means one is born in ambiguity. It means being neither British, nor Cantonese, nor Chinese, but something in between. It means to be born in city that was, for a long time, the only financial cluster of Asia. The place where funding banks were born and was proud of civility and its rule of law. A city that didn’t actually have a choice with the English rule, but after it tasted freedom granted by its institutions, has dealt with the pressure of a giant stepping over all what citizens have built. Is Hong Kong really a part of China? If it comes to geopolitical administration, yes, but citizens don’t feel they are culturally part of the Chinese people or even Chinese ethnicity. A poll developed by the Hong Kong University shows that ethnic identification with Chinese people has dropped from around 40% in 2008 to 20% In 2017. Nevertheless, Hong Kong’s youth has a far lower percentage, with only 3% of people between 18 and 30 years old identifying themselves as Chinese in 2017. In 2019, only around 10% of the population felt a “proud Chinese citizen”. Joshua goes even further, as he is part of a religious minority in the continent: christianism.
You belong to a “religious minority” in Asia. How has “being christian” affected your decisions in life and your decisions as a dissident?
As christians, we strongly recognize the importance of religious freedom. Also, God and Jesus gave us independence of mind and critical thinking.
But those things, christianity, religious freedom and independence of mind, threat the regime. It is important to show that people were given critical thinking and independence of the mind, that’s a gift from God.
What are you studying?
Now I’m studying Political Science at the University of Hong Kong. It helps me a lot with my work.
Why did you and Nathan Law found the Demosisto party?
We started this party because we wanted to continue to share the voice of a new generation from the Umbrella Movement. Also, to let people know that even if we are graduating from university, we will still persist on what we believe and we will fight for democracy.
And what does the Demosisto party do?
We organize the youth to lead campaigns, we organize movements and civil disobedience.
You have been imprisoned several times. What are their legal and political arguments to do this?
I was in jail because of my commitment and participation in the Umbrella Movement and need to say that I do not have any regrets at all, even if I had to face such a high jail sentence for nearly 100 days.
Their arguments were: unauthorized assembly and civil disobedience. I would say that this kind of political prosecution and to target the leaders of the movement just demonstrates how they get their agenda and their strategic plans to silence the voice of political dissidents.
China and the supporters of the China’s uprise say two things: one, that they don’t agree with all western-imposed values and second, due to harmony and the maintenance of the greater good. Do you think this is a valid argument?
To silence the voices doesn’t mean you will reach harmony. For example, for us without democracy, Hong Kong will never have harmony and will still have conflicts and it is still far away from the ideal society that we hope to achieve.
Even if they silence the voice of dissidents and lock us in jail, it will not have solved the problem. But Hong Kong is still far away from democracy.
Do you think Hong Kong must be independent from China?
Free elections and fundamental political rights is what we ask for. We do not advocate on Hong Kong’s independence, we are waiting for the day Hong Kong can have political autonomy.
How do you balance the current situation of Hong Kong?
I remember the situation of Hong Kong around 2000, three years after the transition of sovereignty people still hoped that China would let Hong Kong have democracy. But with the Human Rights transgressions through recent years, we just know that under the regime’s policy we will need to pay more efforts and continue this battle.
You talked about civil and political rights, but China also has a cultural penetration strategy in Hong Kong. For example, they have tried to install mandarin as the main language and tried to change the educational values, match them with the Chinese ones. How do you see this attempt to interfere in Hong Kong’s culture?
Yes, cultural interference is the tactic used by Beijing towards Hong Kong, primarily to ban cantonese and change it to mandarin. But also, to ignore the importance of critical thinking and just install brainwashing education to make young students, not only love the country but also to make them be loyal to the regime, loyal to the Communist Party of China.
This kind of cultural interference and to force students to comply in order to have a favorable treatment and enjoy the benefits of China, is not reasonable at all. So can we enhance the uniqueness of Hong Kong? That’s the reason for us to try to strengthen civil society and also show that Hong Kong is different from Mainland China.
You try to embrace a cultural independence…
Is there anyone in Hong Kong who doesn’t speak mandarin?
In Hong Kong I guess that half the people don’t really know how to speak mandarin. I would say cantonese is part of the unique culture of Hong Kong, so it is linked to political participation and the way of living. And it is so diverse and different from Mainland, so we hope we can preserve it.
In the 80’s, movies raised the image of Hong Kong to the world. Do you think Cinema is still a cultural advantage of Hong Kong?
That was a cultural advantage, but now the media production has a strong interference from mainland. So how can we prevent it? it is not easy to save it.
There is a problem in Hong Kong with overpopulation and the rise of housing prices. Do you think this social problem and discomfort unleashes a search for help from Mainland?
Direct capital continuously invested in Hong Kong’s housing market has only downgraded houses and flats.
There are not places for people to live, but for people to invest in. So, I would say that the regime’s interference in Hong Kong is not only limited to cultural interference or political oppression, they also affect the way of living with the unlimited investments in Hong Kong’s housing market and they ignore the right of the people to have a reasonable amount of space for living.
Overpopulation is a problem that Hong Kong government cannot act on, because the local government has not power on deciding the population policy, it is all controlled by Beijing.
How would you describe to be a dissident in the 21st century?
Being a dissident in the 21st century is quite different from what we experienced in the previous days because, with the free flow of information and the uprise of social media, the spreading is much different.
So, how can we continue to have our efforts and hope to seek for certain change? It really needs to have more international collaboration. How can we show global solidarity? It’s our goal in the future.
Note from the author: This interview was developed in several parts between May, 2019 and November, 2019, as the conflict intensified in the city. The interview was conducted in English, digitally, through a direct contact with Joshua Wong.
The opinions and statements expressed in this publication are the sole responsibility of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect those of the Dissidents.org team, Fundacion para el Progreso, or the organizations that cooperate with this project. The same is valid for the opinions, statements and actions of the interviewees in other moments and contexts, both in the past and in the future.