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Using Technologies to Stand for Freedom in Hong Kong

Joshua Wong, a leading Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, discusses the challenges to political and personal freedom in Hong Kong.

Interview with Joshua Wong October 13, 2020 //   17 minute read

Joshua Wong launched the Scholarism movement as a 14-year old Hong Kong student to stop Chinese authorities from creating a national education curriculum that he and his fellow students feared would lead to an indoctrination of communist teachings and the loss of freedom of thought. His work became the subject of a Netflix documentary and placed him on TIME’s list of most influential teens. The 23-year old remains a leading democracy activist in Hong Kong. In fact, since this interview took place in late August, Chinese authorities detained and released him for his leadership role.

Wong, the author of I Am Not A Hero, spoke with Lindsay Lloyd, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Human Freedom Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute, Chris Walsh, Senior Program Manager in the Human Freedom Initiative, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute, about the challenges to political and personal freedom in Hong Kong. The challenge includes the threat of individuals being jailed for protesting China’s crackdown on individual liberties in his city. Wong explained how the national security law China implemented this summer hopes to silence the voice of Hong Kongers. And he detailed how citizens are using technologies to resist the clampdown, including erasing their digital footprints. An excerpt from his interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, is included in the accompanying video.

Let’s start with an overview of the situation on the ground in Hong Kong, some background on Beijing's national security law and its meaning, and what is happening to you personally.

We are all aware how Beijing ignores the promise of one country, two systems in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. And since the protests in the summer of 2019 until now, almost 10,000 Hong Kongers have been arrested during the protest movement. In a city of seven million people, this ratio is extremely high.

Aside from the number of court cases, there has been the implementation of the National Security Law since the 30th of June. The law hopes to silence the voice of Hong Kongers and our advocacy around the world.

The law hopes to silence the voice of Hong Kongers and our advocacy around the world.

Even conducting this interview could create risks. We are not sure what the arbitrary and loose definition of the phrase, “collusion with a foreign force,” means when it comes to talking or meeting with a foreign think tank or media. We don’t know if this puts our life in risk or not. And there is the uncertainty of being extradited to China and sent to the black jail in Beijing. There also have been a lot of shootings of protesters.

As far as my personal experience, I am facing four charges in two court cases. One includes organizing, inciting, and participating in an unauthorized assembly. 

I also am not sure when the day will come for national security agents to arrest me directly. I have been followed by unknown private cars. Our life in Hong Kong is uncertain. Jimmy Lai and Agnes Chow were recently arrested suddenly. The house of Jimmy Lai was stormed by police from the security bureau at 5 a.m. 

We all experience lots of uncertainty. Arresting me or extraditing me alone to China seems to be a matter of timing. [Editor’s Note: Joshua Wong was detained and released in September.]

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You wrote recently in the New York Times that “Tomorrow, who knows who will be China's next targets, but I do know that many Hong Kongers will respond by demonstrating our solidarity through creativity.” How might Hong Kongers creatively respond to Beijing's encroachment on their freedom?

Last summer, two million out of seven million people took to the streets to show that Hong Kong people want free elections. We are not asking for something that goes too far. We just are asking for the chance to vote, to elect our administration. If a great city like New York or London can elect its mayor, why can't Hong Kong? 

We just are asking for the chance to vote, to elect our administration. If a great city like New York or London can elect its mayor, why can't Hong Kong?

Due to the outbreak of coronavirus, it could be harder to mobilize people. But more than half a million Hong Kongers recently cast ballots in the democratic primary election.

And there has been a virtual protest through the popular Nintendo Switch game, Animal Crossing. Hong Kong game players organized the protest, which resulted in Animal Crossing being banned in mainland China. Residents there are not able to buy this game anymore. 

And when Jimmy Lai was arrested in August, many Hong Kongers invested in Next Media, his media outlet. They did that to support the media tycoon. I can't imagine in which country or city protesters would invest in the stock market to show their political preference. It is remarkable.

Hong Kongers also are using technologies to boycott pro-China restaurants and support pro-democracy restaurants. We are combining our daily life with our resistance. Every day, when I think about where should I have my breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I turn on my mobile phone and use an app to show me which restaurant belongs to the pro-democratic camp. I choose to have my consumption in the restaurant that supports democracy, or even push forward the general strike.

Hong Kongers also are using technologies to boycott pro-China restaurants and support pro-democracy restaurants. We are combining our daily life with our resistance.

In the United States, particularly since 2016, there's been concern about disinformation by foreign powers being injected into our democracy. Is disinformation impacting a reliable flow of information in Hong Kong, including during this pandemic? If so, who is responsible and how are they doing that?

Misleading information and propaganda by the pro-Beijing camp is part of what we are experiencing. When I was in high school during the Umbrella Movement, the most popular pro-Beijing newspaper accused me of being a CIA agent and that I was trained by the U.S. Marines. Pro-Beijing politicians might not believe that, but they still used this kind of propaganda. When my parents read that, they asked me, “If you are trained by the CIA, how come your body size is far different from that of Tom Cruise?”

There also is a lot of disinformation and rumors that say the National Endowment for Democracy or other think thanks fund the democratic camp in Hong Kong. Or how a politician in Hong Kong follows orders from U.S. consulate. There are even some rumors that I received a donation from the U.S. government.

This kind of propaganda exists day by day. That’s why we lobby for greater regulation of social media enterprises and for them to recognize that state-owned enterprises might organize fake accounts to provide misleading information. They need to take a more active approach. 

Lawmakers need to deal with this information because the unlimited resources of the pro-Beijing camp could trigger more and more of these kinds of rumors and propaganda. During the early stage of the protest movement in 2019, we tried to pretend nothing happened or tried to keep our distance from this issue. But we realized that if we try not to comment on it, some ordinary citizens might still believe in it. 

For example, they might argue that I was born in Vietnam and my parents are refugees from Vietnam. And that is why I hate the Communist Party. But that's not true at all. It’s critical for us to give our direct and immediate response.

We've read that people in Hong Kong are modifying or even getting rid of some of their digital footprints. They're canceling accounts, unfriending people, and deleting posts. Why are people worried about their digital footprints and how does this behavior affect the movement in Hong Kong?

On August 30th of last year, I was arrested by Hong Kong police and they directly prosecuted me on the same day. One activist being arrested or prosecuted is not news, especially since more than almost 10,000 people were arrested. But they took my phone as evidence and didn’t ask me to provide my mobile password or any information. 

Right before Christmas, I suddenly received some police documents related to the court case. I became aware that they cracked into my phone and gained access to my WhatsApp and Telegram. They got chat records without my agreement. The court even provided the search warrant for them, but they didn't give notice to my lawyer. Finally, my lawyer received the document and realized that they had cracked my phone. 

They have the phones of more than 3,000 Hong Kong protesters in police headquarters. With the permission of the Hong Kong courts, which Beijing now interferes with, they have access to all of our information. 

Since the National Security Law was implemented, Hong Kong people always have another phone for discussing more private issues. And we delete some of the unnecessary information. Or if we need to make any records of our meeting, we will not put up our full name because we are not sure when will be the day they arrest us.

When I left my home one day last August at 7 a.m., four men wearing polo shirts suddenly told me that they needed to arrest me without any notification. They put me into a seven-seat private car.

This means that every day when I walk around, I'm not sure who near me might be the police or whether a private car belongs to the police. Will they only stop or arrest me? 

That is the Hong Kong style of judicial independence. And that is why some people intend to delete their digital footprint. Dealing with the digital footprint is really important. That's why I use the Beaker browser instead of Google Chrome.

And despite all this, you're still active online. You use certain social media to get your views across. Why do you feel it's important to continue doing that?

It's still important to let the voice of Hong Kongers be heard. And even if they hack my computer, perhaps they might listen to all of our conversation right now, especially since we are using Zoom. But if the conversation is sensitive, I will use Jitsi instead of Zoom. We still need to continue the resistance. 

Even if Hong Kong is not Hong Kong anymore, the spirit of Hong Kongers is still alive. We are trying to resist creatively and in an alternative way. 

The outbreak of COVID-19 might make it more difficult and even impossible to mobilize one million people to the street. At the same time, we choose to confront, we choose to resist, and we choose to not give up when the authorities arrest Jimmy Lai and when the authorities arrest Agnes Chow. 

That’s the message we hope to deliver to the world. That's why I still operate my Twitter in English and seek far more global attention. I write in Chinese on Facebook to explain our hope to the local communities and to let people know that there is no reason for us to keep silent if the issue is not sensitive.

If there is a sensitive issue, we should have enough awareness to deal with the information securely and guarantee our safety and our friends' safety. But it doesn't mean that we would keep silent and not engage in politics or in our fights.

Why do authoritarian societies like China fear technology? What threat does technology pose to the Chinese government or the Chinese regime?

That is a good question. Apart from engaging in politics, I love to play video games. And I just realized that when I play PlayStation 4, some of my family members or some of my friends in mainland China can't play on the PlayStation Network. Those playing video games by the Sony digital device are not able to connect it to the other users outside of China. 

One reason the authoritarian regime banned Animal Crossing was they were afraid of the free flow of information, even though they can have a mass surveillance system to control every citizen’s life. But they can't guarantee every bit of information, every message, and all of the content on digital platforms. That’s why they are afraid of it. 

One reason the authoritarian regime banned Animal Crossing was they were afraid of the free flow of information, even though they can have a mass surveillance system to control every citizen’s life. But they can't guarantee every bit of information, every message, and all of the content on digital platforms. That’s why they are afraid of it.

Even in mainland China, they are not able to play Nintendo Switch when they use PlayStation 4. They can't connect it to have an online battle with people outside of China. That implies the authoritarian regime’s mass surveillance is not only about your right to vote, it's about your right to play video games with your friends. 

This really matters for our daily life. And it's time for Beijing to be aware that even though they try to censor all the information inside China, they can't censor all the information around the world.

They are doing this even as they try to expand China’s influence in the global community. During the protest movement last year with the NBA’s political censorship, Blizzard tried to punish one of the players for voicing a slogan to support Hong Kong. And after I used a slogan in February supporting Hong Kong’s democracy movement while I was playing Animal Crossing, all of the content related to Animal Crossing was banned in Beijing. 

They have a new version of Call to Duty about the history of the Cold War. The advertisement video only shows the Tiananmen Square Massacre for one second but the whole video is banned in mainland China. This shows the regime is afraid of the free flow of information because the state machine is not as efficient as the free flow of information in a global community.

What actions could democracies like ours in the United States take to help the democracy movement in Hong Kong? How can they help activists like yourself?

Standing with Hong Kong in such a critical time is really important. After the protests in 2019, the U.S. Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Hong Kong is a small city and may seem to not deserve this kind of support. But we strongly support democracy, even though a minority group is loyal to Beijing. 

No matter who wins the U.S. presidential election, we will be looking to see how the new administration deals with China.

What gives you hope for the future?

I have no hope for the regime, but I still have hope for people in the local and global community, especially Hong Kongers. From my point of view, since the summer of 2019 anyone one who loves and cares about Hong Kong upholding the importance of freedom, rule of law, and democracy could be proud to recognize themselves as Hong Kongers.

The National Security Law affects citizens physically living in Hong Kong. But it also affects all freedom lovers and freedom fighters around the world. That’s the reason I hope Hong Kong can still be kept under the global spotlight.