Prison is an inevitable part of Hong Kong’s exhausting path to democracy

The Guardian
By Joshua Wong (first published 28 September 2017)

Life at the correctional facility is dull and dry; to be disconnected from the family and friends I have fought alongside is also tremendously painful.

But despite these difficulties, I remain proud of my commitment to the umbrella movement, which was born exactly three years ago today.

After reading Nelson Mandela’s autobiography and the memoirs of the recently deceased Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, I can’t help but think: what are these British-style marching exercises and the bad food here in Hong Kong compared to their sufferings?

Being locked up is an inevitable part of our long, exhausting path to democracy. Our bodies are held captive, but our pursuit of freedom cannot be contained. Adversity will only sharpen our wits and make us more strong-willed, resulting in the political awakening of more Hong Kongers, not to mention the international community’s support.

In the past, when we spoke of political detainees under the Chinese Communist party, we were referring to dissidents in mainland China. Yet as Hong Kong ushers in a heightened authoritarian era, to advocate human rights is to risk becoming a political detainee. This is the new normal. One simply cannot turn a blind eye and kid oneself that Hong Kong is still the same as it has always been.

Since I was jailed last month, for my role in starting 2014’s 79-day umbrella movement demonstrations, I have learned from newspapers of the continued deterioration of Hong Kong’s liberties.

Back in 2014, my fellow Hong Kongers and I hoped to use nonviolent means to fight for our territory’s democratic system – a simple right, promised by Beijing, to choose our own leader.

Last year a court here in Hong Kong found me guilty of participating in an “unlawful assembly” but only sentenced me to community service, acknowledging our belief in civil disobedience to achieve selfless values.

But the justice secretary, Rimsky Yuen, overruled that decision and insisted on seeking harsher punishments. He called our demonstrations part of the city’s “unhealthy tendency” and put me in jail for six months, making me Hong Kong’s youngest political prisoner.

In the past, the prosecution of “unlawful assembly”-related charges often targeted criminal activities by gangs. Now these outdated colonial-era laws left behind by the British have become the tool to suppress Hong Kong’s democratisation. The cost of civil disobedience will dramatically increase as participants must now expect not community service but jail time.

Dozens more who have played a prominent role in the umbrella movement may also be facing imprisonment in the near future. It’s clear Hong Kong is no longer the metropolis the world had come to know, “with freedom but without democracy”.

Hong Kongers who stand up to defend our autonomy are, one by one, relentlessly pursued by the Beijing-backed administration and courts that are determined to give us disproportionate jail sentences. The rule of law that Hong Kong once prided itself on has been overridden by Beijing’s rule by law.

Countries often prioritise economic interests over human rights – hence all the kowtowing to China. But I continue to believe that Hong Kong, as the freest part on Chinese soil with the strongest faith in democracy, can still make a difference. Nothing exposes the facade of China’s so-called “peaceful rise” more clearly than the taking of political prisoners in Hong Kong. Our fight will not cease under Xi Jinping’s hardline authoritarianism.

Not long after I was convicted, along with my friends Nathan Law and Alex Chow, Hong Kong’s last governor, Lord Patten, claimed we would “be remembered long after the names of those who have persecuted [us] have been forgotten and swept into the ashcan of history”. One New York Times columnist even suggested a Nobel peace prize nomination.

I am grateful for all these kind words. But now that I find myself behind bars, I have only one modest wish: may the world not forget Hong Kong and may history remember the umbrella movement. It belongs to each and every Hong Konger who stood alongside us in the struggle for autonomy.

A quarter of the world’s population lives under Beijing’s rule. Hong Kong’s 7.3 million citizens are just a small fraction of that. But these citizens are significant for their courage, persistence and conviction – these are qualities that I believe can make us powerful in the face of oppression.

I may have temporarily lost my freedom, but I have never regretted my involvement in the umbrella movement. Perhaps success is far off. But even if we could turn back the clock, I would still choose civil disobedience. It is a responsibility our generation bears, and we will not hold back until the day democracy arrives.

Hong Kong may be small, but its people make it great.

Joshua Wong is a Hong Kong pro-democracy campaigner and co-founder of the Demosisto party
Translated by Athena Tong and Jeffrey Ngo.

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