How did you get started in protest and advocacy in Hong Kong?
In 2011, the Hong Kong government tried to introduce the
patriotic national education school curriculum to all primary,
middle, and high school students. In Hong Kong, patriotic
education is just forcing every student to show their loyalty to
the Communist Party of China. So what we tried to do was
organize and found a student activist group, and let people in
Hong Kong recognize the political propaganda of the Chinese
government. Thatís the year I founded Scholarism.
In 2012, with street demonstrations, rallies, and protests including high school student hunger strikes, we successfully forced the Hong Kong government to put aside the curriculum. Later on in 2013 and 2014, we continued to fight for direct elections because in Hong Kong only 1,200 pro-Beijing elites and tycoons can vote in the chief executive election.
In 2014, this resulted in the Umbrella Movementómore than a million Hong Kong people participated in the movement. Even though we not could achieve concrete change, we strengthened civil society and made the international community keep their eyes on Hong Kong.
In 2015, I decided to found a political party, because it is time for us to have a long-term battle with the Communist Party. We hope to bring the spirit and faith of the social movement to get into institutions. In 2016, we ran in elections and the chairperson of my political party, Demosisto, Nathan Law, became the youngest lawmaker in Hong Kong history, at 23 years old. I canít run in the election because of the age limit of 21, I am still 20.
What do you think changed in Hong Kong during the Umbrella Revolution?
Most people believed that Hong Kongers were just economic
animals, living in a global financial center, only focused on
money, economic benefit, or infrastructure development. But
after the Umbrella Movement, at least we proved to the world
that Hong Kongers are ready for democracy.
And we have waited for the promises of the Beijing government for more than thirty years already. There was a promise to Hong Kong to have democracy in the Sino-British joint declaration in 1984. From 1984 to 2017, Beijing has put aside their promises and continued to erode the rule of law and high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong.
What do you think pro-democracy activists should have done differently during the Umbrella Movement?
This was the first time we organized a large-scale movement, which means that before the Umbrella Movement no one would expect Hong Kongers to gather on the street with peace and non-violence and occupy for 79 days amid tear gas and suppression from the police force. But I would say that the bargaining power that we generated in the Umbrella Movement was still not enough to force the Communist Party to respect us and to give Hong Kongers democracy and direct elections and universal suffrage. It just shows that itís a long-term battle for us because fighting against the largest communist regime in the world is not really an easy thing.
What hope do you have for the future?
Hope for the best, prepare for the worst. Lawmakers in Hong Kong, democratically elected, face disqualification from the Beijing government. I would say before this we believed that Hong Kong was a place without democracy but with an approximation of freedom. But now we realize that the Chinese government is trying to turn Hong Kong into a place more similar to Singapore, [into] an electoral authoritarian or semi-authoritarian regime.
Given that, what are your immediate political goals, to stop Hong Kong from becoming somewhere like Singapore?
We tried to get into institutions by running in the election,
because we can be legitimized by getting a seat in the Legislative
Council (LegCo). Through the process of election, we
get a mandate from the people and we can let people know
no matter whether they agree or disagree with us that we are
already representing the people and we get people behind our
Now that youíve won seats in the LegCo, what do you plan to do with them?
In Hong Kong, because in the Legislative Council, half of
the seats are not directly elected, if we even get a majority in
direct elections, we are still the minority in the chamber. According
to the Basic Law, the mini-constitution of Hong Kong,
legislators canít legislate, we canít raise any bills or policy acts
in the Council that will really affect the budget, we just get the
veto power on the proposals raised by the government. While
the legislators canít legislate in the Council, we can just gather resources that we gain, I mean the financial resources owned
by the legislature, and push forward to strengthen civil society
In 2047, when ĎOne Country Two Systemsí [the current system of semi-autonomy for Hong Kong] expires, whatís your ideal hope for Hong Kong at that point?
The ideal hope is self-determination, which means we hope
to determine the future of Hong Kong by referendum. Beijing
will hope to change it to ĎOne Country One System,í or ĎOne
Country Two Systemsí will exist in name only; we have already
faced the failure of ĎOne Country Two Systemsí in recent years.
No matter whether we get a high degree of autonomy, or complete
autonomy, or independence, these are all options: determining
our future and letting the constitution and sovereignty
of Hong Kong be decided by the people of Hong Kong.
Would you prefer a continuation of ĎOne Country Two Systems,í or independence in 2047?
The fact is that we donít have enough capacity to get universal
suffrage back from the hands of Beijing, so no matter
[whether weíre] under ĎOne Country Two Systemsí or under
the rule of the Chinese government or even independent, actually
all of the options are not really likely.
What I mean is that in the current political context all options that arenít ĎOne Country One Systemí are not really achievable because we do not have enough bargaining power. So from now until 2047, there are still thirty years left, we hope to let people know that no matter what the final option is, at least we need to get a referendum to decide [on our] sovereignty and the constitution.
Do you think that civil society is stronger in Hong Kong than in recent history?
The high degree of autonomy is eroded, but at least people
are more energetic and passionate to fight for the future.
What lessons would you say that youíve learned about how to pursue democratic activism that might be useful for other people around the world?
Sometimes we felt downhearted and depressed, especially
after the end of the Umbrella Movement; we generated the
largest social movement in Hong Kongís history, but the political
system still remained unchanged. We felt depressed and felt
no hope to continue into the future or to seek any possibility of
change. But from history we learned that itís a long term battle.
We must be target-oriented. Although we didnít win in the Umbrella Movement, we have to look forward: the positive results we gained in the Legislative Council elections last September or civil society being strengthened and the international community still caring about the situation in Hong Kong and the threat of China. I just hope that the people who support democracy, fighting for freedom and human rights, are not unknown. Even with different political systems [and cultural backgrounds], we still have universal values for the people in the world.
I would also emphasize the threat of China is not just in mainland China, but the whole of Southeast Asia. I experienced how the [Chinese] government blocked my entry to Malaysia and also Thailand. Itís proof that the anti-democracy propaganda from China has already spread across the whole of Southeast Asia, and even the world.
What do you think the international community should be doing more of in order to support Hong Kong?
Last November I got a chance to visit Capitol Hill and now
I know senators are trying to introduce the Hong Kong Human
Rights and Democracy Act. Itís an act that hopes to show
support of democratization in Hong Kong. Politicians in the
United States, if they need to tackle the threat of China, first
need to tackle the situation in Hong Kong, because Hong Kong
is already the last city under the rule of Chinaís government
that still has hope of achieving democracy. If we canít see hope
in Hong Kong, we will not see any hope for China to learn to
respect human rights.
So I know a lot of issues like the South China Sea or the One China Policy are also important, but from a Hong Kongerís perspective, I hope people around the world could recognize the importance of the unique position of Hong Kong.
Do you see hope for democracy movements in mainland China?
ďHope for the best, prepare for the worst.Ē Before change comes to mainland China, the first place change needs to [be tackled] or settle in is Hong Kong. First Hong Kong, then mainland China. If we canít see any chance for democratization in Hong Kong, we will not see any possibility for China to be democratized.
Do you think that since the handover, a distinct political, cultural, or national identity has evolved in Hong Kong?
In recent years, weíve seen [the] diversity and the differences between Hong Kong people and mainland Chinese people. We of course are ethnically Chinese, but I think more Hong Kong people will not recognize themselves as Chinese citizens. Just take myself as an example, while I have been blacklisted to enter mainland China, how can I be patriotic or loyal to the identity of a Chinese citizen?
How important is Cantonese to this identity?
Cantonese and traditional written Chinese are the symbolic and fundamental differences between Hong Kong and mainland China. It is also the basis for us to create a unique Hong Kong culture. We are proud of the unique language we use, we hope to maintain the uniqueness and differences of Hong Kong towards mainland China. It is also the reason for the Beijing government to try more new policies to put aside Cantonese or force more students just to use Putonghua [Mandarin].
How successful do you think these policies are likely to be?
In recent years, more law schools in Hong Kong have turned to using Putonghua to teach because they may think that itís easy for students to be more familiar with Putonghua to enter the Chinese market. But I would say that, though I am not against people in Hong Kong learning Putonghua, if we need to learn Chinese, Cantonese is our first and our mother language, and we should use our mother language to learn the Chinese language.
Are you seeing signs of reconciliation in Beijing?
In the next few years, if itís still under the rule of President Xi Jinping, I canít see any hope to get things changed and move forward.
Do you have any regrets personally about focusing on political activism?
Iím donít regret it because I think itís meaningful and itís valuable to let people know that the new generation, born a year before the handover, is not only focusing on our personal careers, but also [caring] about the future of the place or the country that we are born in, live in, and love.
I just hope people care about Hong Kong, because the most significant thing is that if anyone hopes to tackle the threat of China around the world, the first, or maybe the final hope for them is democratization in Hong Kong. Itís the symbolic or the central reason for me, I hope to connect it to the international community, so that they know more about the situation in Hong Kong and ask more people around the world, civil society members, or politicians to support democratization in Hong Kong.