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Denise Ho is a Hong Kong-based artist and pro-democracy and LGBTQ rights activist. This week, Ho is on the front lines of the Hong Kong protests against the proposed extradition bill. The legislation has alarmed human rights and democracy activists, who could be prosecuted in mainland China for political or other alleged offenses.
Ho was a leading supporter of the Umbrella movement in Hong Kong and arrested for taking part in the 2014 nonviolent pro-democracy protests. Due to her activism, she was banned by the Chinese government from performing in China, where she was an award-winning performer. Despite retaliation from the Chinese government, Ho continues to campaign for democracy in Hong Kong and LGBTQ rights globally.
Senior Fellow Meighan Stone interviewed Ho on Thursday morning, following escalating police violence in Hong Kong and reports of five thousand riot police using rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray to disperse an estimated one million overwhelmingly peaceful protestors Wednesday.
A special thanks to the Human Rights Foundation for their support on facilitating this interview. Rebecca Hughes, research associate with the Women and Foreign Policy program, also contributed to the development of this piece.
Some observers have been surprised at the size and commitment of public protests in response to the extradition bill. The bill has triggered deep concerns, especially for Hong Kong human rights and democracy activists. How have rights been eroded in Hong Kong over the past few years? What are your concerns on what's ahead with the passage of the bill?
This extradition law has been attracting such fierce opposition because of the accumulated frustration and anger of Hong Kongers. Since the Umbrella movement in 2014, the Hong Kong government has been ignoring the voice of the people.
We have had activists prosecuted because of their political involvement in protests and six lawmakers have been disqualified in the Legislative Council. There are booksellers who have been kidnapped from Hong Kong and brought to China. They reappear on TV to apologize for “crimes”. The Chinese government has been eroding our democratic systems and our “one country two systems” model over these four years. And then this year, they’ve been trying to push the extradition law on the Hong Kong people. If this bill passes, the Chinese government can extradite anyone from Hong Kong, which is unacceptable under our basic law which promised Hong Kong’s autonomy. A million people came onto the streets on Sunday, and the way the government has been ignoring all these people's voices and is still trying to push ahead on this bill, it has made everyone very angry.
It's hard to escape the power of the Hong Kong protest coming at the thirty-year anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. Do you think the lack of censorship in Hong Kong versus mainland China has helped drive public engagement?
We had fears even during the Umbrella movement that it would be a repeat of the Tiananmen massacre. I think it is a different era when the news cannot be totally erased and China is in a different position from back in 1989. There are some mature people, who experienced or witnessed the Tiananmen massacre, who would have fears. But I don't think that it’s comparable, we should not let that burden be on us because this is a completely new generation and we are in a different time and space globally with the internet.
We are in a civil disobedience movement right now, because we were pushed to the edge by the Hong Kong government and since legal protests were not working at all. So, that’s why the people went on the streets today. There were all sorts of acts of protest, like cars were stopping and having “car accidents,” I think the people are learning from the experiences of the Umbrella movement and they are using creative and different ways to make it difficult for the Hong Kong government to disperse the crowds. But I still need to emphasize the fact that many people were pushed onto the streets because the Hong Kong government is not listening to the voices of the people. It does not make sense for the Hong Kong officials to ask for the protesters to disperse because we have our demands and they aren't just not responding at all. And I think that’s the most violent thing that has been done these past few days: the Hong Kong government should be protecting us. They are turning on their people and I have no idea why they need to pass this extradition bill at all costs. Is all that has happened today worth [Chief Executive of Hong Kong] Carrie Lam passing this law? That is my question to her.
You were a key leader in the 2014 Umbrella movement. How are you seeing young leaders organize protests today and how have your tactics had to change?
The symbolism of this movement is empowering because you see protestors who are very young, just seventeen or eighteen, many university and secondary students. These people were not on the streets during the Umbrella movement and you see a new generation of youngsters coming onto the streets, which is a symbol of hope for our people. For me, this is an upgraded version of our fight for democracy and basic human rights, and for Hong Kong.
It is very different from the Umbrella movement where people used one tactic and had a leaders driving the organization. This time around, after four years, the police have upgraded their skill set, gear and the scale of force. But at the same time, we have upgraded all our tactics, and people are becoming smarter, more flexible, and creative. People are mobilizing organically. People are learning from their experiences. This is something for the Hong Kong government to be really afraid of, because they only have the tactics to suppress people in a certain way.
How are you dealing with police violence and concerns on digital surveillance? Have you witnessed or seen Chinese government presence increase or had other signs that make you concerned about state violence in a potential crackdown?
Very early Wednesday morning, crowds started to gather in response to a call for a citywide strike, including student and work strikes. Then the police started to try to disperse the people, and as you can see in various videos, they have been using excessive force on many peaceful protesters, even though some of them are middle-aged women and mothers. They were just going crazy.
This is a very frustrating moment for Hong Kong because we have a government that totally does not care about the safety of their people and they are trying to frame our response as a “riot”. But in fact, 99 percent of the people are peaceful protesters without weapons and they were only triggered by the police. I was among the crowds and police were trying to barge over peaceful protesters. I was personally pushed by the shoes of the police, they did not give any alarm to the people before barging in. We were just standing there, and they threw tear gas and used all sorts of tactics against us, which created chaos. They have obviously and most certainly used excessive and unnecessary force.
TV here is only showing the so-called “violent” images, which actually were provoked by the Hong Kong police. It is fortunate that we have a lot of international press on the ground with us. And we have mobile phones shooting everything and circulating it, so that visibility can protect us on a certain level. As a normal citizen, there is not much else that we can do but to report it or to upload the videos on the internet, since the Hong Kong government is certainly not going to take note of any of our complaints because the police are basically working for them. It has become a police state right now in Hong Kong.
What are you calling on the U.S. government to do in support? What meaningful action are you asking for from the global community?
We really appreciate the support from some of the people in the U.S. government, some of your members of Congress. Standing up for our people and raising concerns is very helpful in this moment. The Hong Kong government is viewing their people as “a riot” and everything that we have said has fallen on deaf ears. Any pressure from international governments, especially the U.S. and UK government, is really helpful for us, especially, maybe penalizing Carrie Lam, our Chief Executive Officer, for violating the basic law and compromising our “one country two systems” by trying to push ahead this extradition law, which is very dangerous, even to the international community.
We have many U.S. and UK citizens holding British and U.S. passports living in Hong Kong and even they might be in danger of being extradited to China if these amendments are passed. On these grounds, the U.S. government has the obligation to stand up for their people and for civil rights and humanity itself. The UK government has even more obligations because we were a British colony and they were the ones who signed the Sino-British joint declaration in 1984. They have the obligation to see that the “one country two systems” model follows what was written. What Carrie Lam is doing right now in Hong Kong surely violates the intention of this declaration. Hopefully many countries will stand up for Hong Kong.