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‘Hong Kong has just entered into an authoritarian era’

Three years after the Umbrella Movement began, activist Joshua Wong continues to fight for democracy. In conversation with journalist Belinda Lloyd, he discusses his time as Hong Kong’s youngest political prisoner and the state of human rights in the region.

By: /
1 December, 2017
Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong arrives at the Court of Final Appeal in Hong Kong, China November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Bobby Yip
Belinda Lloyd
By: Belinda Lloyd

Global journalism fellow, Munk School of Global Affairs

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heads to China this week to “promote a progressive trade agenda” and reinforce cooperation on climate change. 

Over the course of the trip, which will run from December 3-7, Trudeau is expected to travel to Beijing and Guangzhou, meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and other government and business leaders. In a press release, the Canadian government said it remains committed to a stronger relationship with China “based on regular, frank, and comprehensive dialogue, including on issues like good governance, human rights, and the rule of law.”

But the stark reality is that, when it comes to open dialogue on those particular issues, the Canadian prime minister has his work cut out for him. In today’s China, democracy and human rights are concepts often considered too sensitive to be mentioned by a visiting Western leader.

Whether Xi will listen to what Trudeau has to say is also another matter, given the Chinese president’s unrelenting campaign to repress dissenting voices — not just on the Chinese mainland, but also in semi-autonomous Hong Kong.

Under Xi’s watch, Beijing continues to pull out all the stops in an effort to crush Hong Kong democracy activists who refuse to toe the line, especially those who were part of the 2014 pro-democracy protests that brought tens of thousands of citizens to the streets, known as the Umbrella Movement. Although more than three years have passed, those activists are still paying the price for standing up to China’s political repression.

Among them is Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the Umbrella Movement.

The son of a retired IT worker and a homemaker, Wong was only a 17-year-old high school student when he and two of his friends, fellow Umbrella Movement leaders Nathan Law and Alex Chow, led the storming of a courtyard outside Hong Kong’s government headquarters in late September 2014.

Inspired by the protestors’ determination to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms and angered by their removal by police officers, Hongkongers took to the streets, resulting in the 79-day demonstrations that called for the city’s elections to be free from interference by Beijing.

Wong’s display of defiance made him a global democracy icon. The bespectacled teenager’s involvement in the Umbrella Movement became the centerpiece of the award-winning Netflix documentary, Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower, which is under consideration for an Academy Award nomination.

But the Umbrella Movement also landed the most recognized face of Hong Kong’s democracy campaign on the wrong side of the law. Together with Chow and Law, Wong was tried and found guilty of unlawful assembly last year and sentenced to community service.

In an unusual move, the Hong Kong government appealed the sentences given to the Umbrella trio as too lenient. As a result, in August, Wong, Law and Chow were sentenced to six to eight months’ imprisonment.

The government’s appeal against the original sentences and the subsequent imprisonment of the three activists heightened fears that Hong Kong is losing its status as China’s only bastion of openness and democratic freedoms.

It also resulted in Wong becoming Hong Kong’s youngest political prisoner.

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong shouts during a protest against what he calls Beijing’s interference over local politics and the rule of law, November 6, 2016. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

In a sit-down interview in Hong Kong in November, Wong said: “Rimsky Yuen [the justice secretary who appealed the sentences] is a politically appointed government official. Which means that his decision to appeal my original sentence to the Court of Appeal was done under a political agenda or political considerations. 

“That is why I believe my case was one of political persecution — to send a political message and suppress those who ask for democracy.”

Having spent his 21st birthday in a jail cell, Wong is currently out on bail as he appeals his sentence. While he and his lawyers prepare for a January hearing, the activist has also been making the most of his newfound “freedom,” catching up with his family and girlfriend, reading his Manga comics, playing video games and eating local treats he missed out on during his time behind bars.

Wong hasn’t lost his boyish charm, and he says his determination to achieve greater democratic rights for Hong Kong’s citizens hasn’t faltered. But his time in jail has had a visible effect on him. Compared to his public appearances last year, in the recent interview he appeared to be more pensive, reflective and noticeably thinner.

The Umbrella Movement leader said prison demands “absolute submission” to the authorities there. “I feel I’m just like a dog rather than a human,” Wong said, describing his anger at how marginalized young people he met in jail were treated.

“It is normal for prisoners to take off their clothes for security checks. But why is it that in prison, when answering staff members’ questions, we have to take off all our clothes and let staff members use a commanding, forceful tone, and force every person to squat on the floor and look up — like a dog — to answer their master’s questions? Prison is not a place to have dignity.”

Although his desire for democracy hasn’t diminished, Wong fears pursuing such a goal will be even more difficult than it already is, as Xi tightens Beijing’s grip on the former British colony.

Wong was barely nine months old when Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997. Back then, Beijing agreed to maintain the freedoms that citizens had previously enjoyed under a “one country, two systems” rubric that guarantees rule of law and a high degree of autonomy for the Hong Kong government.

That arrangement made Hong Kong the only city on Chinese soil where people could enjoy freedom of expression, press freedom and an independent judiciary. But like many Hong Kong residents, Wong has witnessed China’s backtracking on that pledge.

“Under the hard line of President Xi, it’s more difficult than compared to five, 10 years ago,” Wong said.

“Fighting for democracy is a long-term battle for us. We are fighting against the largest communist dictatorship in the world. We hope for the best, prepare for the worst.”

Xi’s recent assertion of Beijing’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong — a concept he introduced in his address to the Communist Party congress in October — represents a vision that, Wong believes, further signals the president’s determination to curb any attempts to resist Beijing’s edicts.

“The ‘comprehensive jurisdiction’ is really a nightmare to us. It has overridden our autonomy. Now, Hong Kong has just entered into an authoritarian era where those who fight for greater democracy will ultimately become political prisoners. That is something I hope the international community will realize.”

With China’s meteoric rise, Wong fears human rights are in increasingly greater danger of being overshadowed globally by business interests. He also warned citizens of other countries could be unwittingly affected by China’s clampdown on dissent. 

“Economic interests should not override and hijack the interests of human rights. How ‘one country, two systems’ is being strongly eroded in Hong Kong doesn’t only affect the city,” Wong said, noting that Benedict Rogers, the deputy chairman of the UK Conservative Party’s human rights commission, was denied entry in October.

Just as Wong, Law and Chow stuck together during and after the Umbrella Movement, the band of brothers’ bond has become stronger than ever since their release from prison. 

Under their political party, Demosisto, the Umbrella Movement trio is planning to field a candidate to run in a by-election for the city’s semi-democratic legislature, to be held next year. 

The men also recently filed formal complaints to Hong Kong’s Correctional Services Department over their treatment in prison. They say their stint in jail has inspired them to fight for prisoners’ rights and look into prison reform.

Although the possibility of going back to jail looms over them, Wong says he and his fellow activists are not daunted by the prospect of losing their freedom again. 

“I think [the] Hong Kong people’s struggle for democracy is similar to David versus Goliath,” he said. 

“While the government can lock up our bodies, they can’t lock up [our] minds. They can put us in prison. But they cannot destroy our determination to fight for democracy. I will never stop until Hong Kong is Hong Kong again.”

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