Hong Kong, once known as the crown jewel of the Asian business world, has been transformed over the past few weeks into a cauldron of social protest. Activists have captured international attention with strikes, raucous street rallies, clashes with police, and a brief takeover of the Legislative Council building. The protests were a long time coming. Over the past several years, there have been a number of youth-led uprisings against Beijing’s creeping political encroachment on the territory. Under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, set to last half a century, Hong Kong remains relatively independent and democratic, though its citizens do not have universal suffrage. But many feel their autonomy rapidly eroding under pressure from Beijing. The introduction of an extradition bill—which would have enabled Chinese authorities to remove people from Hong Kong to the mainland to face criminal prosecution—unleashed the latest round of protests, the largest mobilization to date.
The protesters are campaigning not just for a preservation of the current status quo of quasi-autonomous status, but for fully democratic elections. Although the extradition bill has been shelved for now, many are demanding that Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam resign, and the demonstrations have grown increasingly militant. I spoke with activist Jeffrey Ngo, a doctoral student at Georgetown University and chief researcher of the Hong Kong-based organization Demosistō, about the escalating crisis and the future of democracy and civil society on the island.
You can listen to a longer version of this interview on the Asia Pacific Forum podcast.
Michelle Chen: The original spark for the protests was the extradition law that seems to have been shelved indefinitely. What are the major demands now?
Jeffrey Ngo: The bill has been suspended but not withdrawn. Obviously there’s a difference between the two because if you suspend the bill then technically you have to wait until the entire legislative term ends on July 2020 for the bill to expire. So there’s still about a year before Hong Kong can stop worrying about the bill being brought up to be debated in the Legislative Council. [But] while the extradition bill is still very important, it seems like the movement has revealed other things happening in Hong Kong that are more structural. Carrie Lam has proven herself to be an ineffective leader who can’t and doesn’t listen to the people. And there are renewed calls for democratic reforms in Hong Kong.
Chen: It seemed like the extradition bill was primarily a symbol of a lot of issues that people had with the weakness of the political infrastructure in Hong Kong and the lack of democracy.
Ngo: [The situation] reveals a lot more about Hong Kong’s political system, which is fundamentally undemocratic. The Chief Executive is not elected by the people. Only thirty-five out of seventy seats in the Legislative Council are directly elected. So even though the pro-Beijing and pro-establishment camp consistently has a lower share of the popular vote, they hold a majority in the Legislative Council. Also the extradition bill is just one of several important examples of the scale of Hong Kong and China integration that Beijing really wants to see.
Chen: It seems like every time political unrest explodes like we saw in 2014, Beijing has managed to stay on the sidelines. China is letting the police in Hong Kong do their dirty work at this point, perhaps because they’re wary of stirring up international outcry. To what extent do you think that will continue?
Ngo: You are certainly right in terms of dealing physically with the protesters in Hong Kong; the police force in Hong Kong still handles that. But on the political side of things, Beijing is definitely not on the sidelines. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong is not elected by the people of Hong Kong, so she is not beholden to us but beholden to Beijing. [Nonetheless,] every time there’s a scene involving tear gas or shows of force on the part of the police, there are rumors that the Chinese military might intervene. So far, fortunately, there’s little evidence that that was ever going to happen. But there are a couple thousand People’s Liberation Army troops permanently stationed in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover. So if the Chinese government does want to intervene with their troops in Hong Kong, they technically could. But you’re right, in terms of the international outcry, that [would] be unimaginable.
Chen: It also seems like the protesters were calling for some kind of solidarity from the international community, particularly from Britain. Do you think that the international diplomacy surrounding this incident has served the people of Hong Kong well or has it been primarily playing into Beijing’s position?
Ngo: Whether or not foreign governments speak out, the Chinese government always will brand anyone who stands against it as somehow influenced or paid off by so-called “foreign forces.” There’s never been any evidence of that, but even thirty years ago during the Tiananmen protests, that label was there. The Chinese government is always going to deny agency to the protesters, which I think obviously is inaccurate. Yes, the British government has spoken out, as it should. [The 1997 Joint Declaration agreement] on Hong Kong promised a high degree of autonomy in accordance with the “one country, two systems” framework for a period of fifty years, so the British government actually has a legal and moral responsibility to hold the Chinese accountable on this at least until 2047. Usually they stay silent and only speak out when there are huge protests. The British have done the right thing, but overall there’s still so much that they could do. Then at the G20 the Japanese prime minister and the American president both spoke personally to a president Xi Jinping about human rights in Hong Kong. I’m happy that they did it, but the international community could do more.
Chen: Hong Kong has basically spent the last couple of generations passing from one caretaker government to another without actually experiencing a full democracy. To what extent do you feel like there’s a movement building for real autonomy or even independence in Hong Kong?
Ngo: My colleagues and I and other civil society groups have been fighting for the past couple of years to try to build a movement for self-determination. So self-determination does not necessarily mean that we advocate independence one way or the other. It could certainly lead to that, but it could also lead to a number of other options. For me self-determination just means that Hongkongers can decide what happens to Hong Kong, and specifically we’re thinking about Hong Kong’s future in terms of our sovereignty status beyond 2047. After 2047 the assumption is that Hong Kong will fully integrate into China, and that is a future that I and certainly many in my generation of Hongkongers don’t want to see. I think there is a case to be made for self-determination because the 1997 handover was basically just us being passed from one colonial master to another. Hong Kong has not been part of this process, so we don’t want to miss the second chance to do this. I still think that it is vital to have international community support. About two years ago, there was an independence referendum held in Catalonia. Overwhelmingly the people who participated in that referendum voted in favor of independence, but the Spanish government didn’t want to recognize it, and it never materialized. So it seems like from a long historical perspective, it’s very rare for a central government of any country to allow an independence referendum to take place and then to honor the results. Given that is the reality, in order for Hong Kong to even imagine a referendum or some kind of arrangement in which Hong Kong could participate in [determining] its future, international support is vital.
Chen: Just to go back to what unfolded in the recent protests, the storming of the Legislative Council turned things up a notch. Of course, Beijing condemned this as “violence,” but it was primarily property destruction. How do you feel as someone who’s been a part of this movement to see that unfold on the international stage?
Ngo: I wasn’t at the Legislative Council, but I was part of the bigger protest on the day that was organized by a civil human rights front in Hong Kong. In terms of the decision to escalate, I think it takes a lot of courage. I can understand why a substantial number of people may not agree with every single thing that the protesters did in terms of breaking into the Legislative Council, whether they think it is a right and wrong issue, or whether they simply think it’s a tactical error, but I think most people who have protested in this movement over the past couple of weeks understand why it happened. And that is because the Hong Kong government under Carrie Lam is completely incapable or unwilling to listen to Hongkongers. In order for Carrie Lam to listen, some escalation is needed.
Chen: How do you think this movement might differ from movements that we’ve seen over the past few years? Do you have any advice for how to galvanize a so-called leaderless movement?
Ngo: I think a leaderless movement is, first of all, good, but also necessary. One of the reasons why it’s necessary is just because of the legal repercussions. My friend Joshua Wong was released from prison for the third time a few weeks ago, and all three times he served prison terms because of his leadership of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014. There are other dissidents apparently serving time in prison both in relation to the Umbrella Movement and also the Mong Kok uprising in early 2016. If you’re prosecuted and found guilty of rioting, the maximum jail sentence is ten years. So it’s a huge price to pay. That’s why no one wants to stand up and say: I’m responsible for everything. Because everybody knows that this is going to be very dangerous. It’s also good because there have been disagreements over escalation, over the importance of peaceful protests or some level of physical destruction of buildings or state property. I think what we’ve seen right now is a mutual understanding. We don’t know for sure which way is going to work. So rather than criticize one another, we just do our own thing. And however things turn out, we respect each other’s methods and principles.
Chen: Can you give some examples of what you could do under a full democracy that you can’t do today?
Ngo: In Hong Kong, education, healthcare, and spending on social programs are some of the biggest problems. The budget goes through the legislature to council and then currently is dominated by the pro-establishment camp, which is basically businesses that are friendly to China and also more ideologically aligned Chinese nationalists. One thing even I don’t understand is why, for instance, the Legislative Council doesn’t allow more spending on healthcare. Meanwhile, the expensive infrastructure projects used Hong Kong taxpayers’ money to fund the high-speed railway that facilitates Hong Kong–China integration. If there was a democratic system in Hong Kong, then the democratically elected government would need to listen to the concerns of Hongkongers.
Chen: The most immediate analogy I draw is with Taiwan, and that’s a place that you’ve written about as well. Can you draw some parallels here? Taiwan has an opposite dilemma in the sense that it does have its autonomy but is fairly isolated, and it has paid politically for asserting its independence from China.
Ngo: Yeah, [there have been] parallels between the two places since 2014 when the Sunflower Movement broke out in Taiwan and the Umbrella Movement broke out in Hong Kong. There has been dialogue and good connections built by activists. I think we value human rights and we value freedom and we value our home as unique places that are simply not like China.
Chen: Unlike Taiwan, in Hong Kong you have an expiration date on your current system of government. As we move toward 2047, the date when the current framework of “one country, two systems” will expire, is there an increasing sense of urgency because no one knows what’s going to happen?
Ngo: Yes. The Chinese government officially says, “2047 doesn’t matter, because even after 2047, Hong Kong is still going to be a part of China.” But then even some in the pro-Beijing camp in Hong Kong realized that 2047 has this significance, and certainly for us as activists on the opposition side, 2047 is the most vital date, because nothing has been set. If nothing has been set then that means anything can be open to discussion, and if that’s the case then Hongkongers ought to be part of that discussion. In 1997 there was the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. Why were Hongkongers not allowed to participate in that process? Now we’re in 2019 so we are close to halfway through the fifty years, and ”one country, two systems” is quite evidently failing. This is very generational for us. After what has happened over the past couple of weeks in Hong Kong it is very difficult, almost impossible, to expect the kind of “return” to China that the Chinese government was really looking forward to in 1997.
Chen: People your age are going to be middle aged by the time 2047 rolls around. Do you feel that you’ll be able to pass the torch to the next generation?
Ngo: I’m very optimistic that the generation after me and future generations will continue to share a very strong Hong Kong identity. After the Umbrella Movement of 2014, [which was part of the ongoing fight for universal suffrage,] there was a widely shared sentiment that people born in the 1990s were going to be the last generation of Hong Kong who would have the urge and the determination to fight. Over the past few years in Hong Kong, we’ve seen our moments of defeat and division even on the opposition side. But the extradition movement has really turned things around. Now we see kids in high school who belong to the post-2000 generation, and they have more courage than some of us. I think they know exactly what’s going on. They know why extradition is troubling. They care deeply about human rights and they want a future that is good for Hong Kong, away from Chinese interference. It is not wise to bet against Hong Kong.
Jeffrey C. H. Ngo is an activist historian of and from Hong Kong. Currently pursuing his PhD in History at Georgetown University, he also serves as chief researcher for Demosistō, the Hong Kong-based youth political group that advocates self-determination. In 2017–18, he was a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto.
Michelle Chen is a contributing editor to Dissent and co-host of its Belabored podcast.