Joshua Wong and Jason Y. Ng, authors of Unfree Speech, discuss free speech in Hong Kong, coronavirus, and the role of literature in campaigning for global democracy.
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The sub-title of Unfree Speech references ‘global democracy’. Could you both speak a bit more about how the Hong Kong context relates to a global context, and to liberties that are threatened internationally.
JOSHUA WONG: In recent years, autocratic regimes like have China started to extend their tentacles worldwide, towards the retreat of global democracy. With its swelling economic clout, China pressures the business world to take its side; attacks critics of its human-rights abuses, such as ‘re-education camps’ for Uyghurs; and jeopardises universities’ autonomy through the Confucius Institute programme. All these imperil the civil liberties that global democracies rest upon.
In our global battle against tyranny, Hong Kong is at the forefront. The Hong Kong movement demonstrates the possibility of saying no to authoritarianism. To hold these global human rights abusers to account, Hongkongers also call on the wider world to put forward an effective human-rights sanction regime.
JASON Y. NG: One of the key messages in Unfree Speech is that Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous territory under Chinese rule, is the only place on Chinese soil where citizens dare stand up to those in power. We believe the kind of suppression of free expression and erosion of civil liberties that has been happening in Hong Kong will happen to the rest of the world in the future – that it’s a matter of when, not if. Like the canary in the coal mine, Hong Kong is sending out a distress signal, so that countermeasures against China and other autocratic regimes can be taken before it is too late.
Activism takes many forms, some transient and some permanent, some direct and some indirect. What does literature allow us to do with our activism? Is it about permanence, reach, or something else?
JN: As a writer, I believe literature can speak to people more directly and personally than any other form of communication. Every book is a private, intimate conversation between a writer and their reader – one that can simultaneously convince, comfort, compel and coerce. It is the sharpest arrow in an activist’s quiver. Literature is all the more crucial in the era of social media, in which disinformation obfuscates truth, and complicated issues are condensed into soundbites.
JW: Under China’s autocratic regime, censorship has become commonplace. Whilst whistleblower doctors are detained for telling the truth, and critical voices on social media are suppressed, literature is permanent activism. It resists China’s attempt to rewrite the history.
As Milan Kundera said, the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. And the Beijing authority is extremely aware of civil society’s ability to document and archive. Unfree Speech mentions our archival project, Decoding Hong Kong’s History, which is unearthing declassified files from the 1980s on Sino-British negotiations and the future of Hong Kong. China’s state mouthpieces said this documentary project was about ‘creating alternative narratives’. In this context, to write is to resist.
What do you fear most? And what drives you to persevere?
JW: In response to public outcry, authoritarian regimes often use force and fear. Resistance has a price; most of the time, this is a long war that makes breeds frustration. When injustice prevails, hopelessness persists, and people turn apathetic, that is what I fear most.
JN: Hongkongers are fighting a war of attrition against communist China. In this long game, patience and resolve become the most valuable commodities. But because we don’t always get the outcomes we want – at least in the short run – disappointment and frustration can turn into apathy and tacit surrender. It’s my greatest fear too.
JW: But I have trust and confidence in Hongkongers’ creativity and resolve. Over the past nine months, the movement has unfolded its endless alternatives, forged by ordinary people. All of them are beyond my imagination. The people, our children, and our city’s future are the reasons I choose to continue fighting.
Free speech is a complex, nuanced, contested term. It is being pulled from multiple directions – by its fraught relationship to hate speech on one hand, by its erosion and suppression in increasingly authoritarian spaces on the other. What are your conceptions of free speech?
JN: Free expression is the one thing that separates the free world from the rogues’ gallery of authoritarian regimes around the world. It is what separates good from evil, the right side of history from the wrong side, us from them. We don’t need to look hard for an example: the suppression of free expression – the punishment of a whistleblower in Wuhan, China – has led directly or indirectly to a pandemic that is now ravaging the entire world.
But free speech is not absolute, and it reaches its limits when it’s weaponised to spread hatred and intolerance. I see its elusiveness as an opportunity, not a threat. The fact that free speech is a right that needs to be exercised, protected, and sometimes curtailed keeps us critical and vigilant.
JW: The outbreak of coronavirus indeed demonstrates that free speech is more than just a matter of freedoms: it’s a matter of life and death. When China detains whistleblower doctors and citizen journalists for telling the truth, unfree speech in one place affects other parts – all parts – of the world. In societies without democratic institutions, free speech is the only weapon to hold the governments accountable for their misconduct. Tyrannical regimes may dictate the people with an iron fist, but not their souls.
Joshua, you have said that you know you will return to prison. What does this certainty do to your activism? Is it immobilizing, or is it liberating?’
JW: For all human-rights defenders, imprisonment is a common tactic that tyrants use to silence dissent. In prison, I had time to read the writing of dissidents; their stories show that imprisonment does not kill dissidence, but instead unveils problems. Imprisonment further challenges the legitimacy of the regime, and mobilises more people to resist.
Could you both speak to me a little about violence and nonviolence?
JN: I spent the better part of January traveling in Europe, giving talks and interviews about the political situation in Hong Kong. Audiences and journalists invariably asked about the sporadic incidents of violence on the streets. So I know first hand how the emergence of violence can complicate the narrative of our pro-democracy struggle, at a time when international support is crucial to our movement.
I continue to advocate nonviolence and reiterate my commitment to the principles of nonviolent civil disobedience. That said, I hasten to point out that the unelected and unaccountable Hong Kong government is ultimately responsible for pushing citizens towards more combative forms of resistance. A piece of anti-government graffiti on one of the protest frontlines offers a poignant explanation (but not an excuse) for the use of more aggressive tactics: ‘It was you who taught us that peaceful protest doesn’t work’.
JW: The answer to the question of violence and nonviolence depends on a government’s response. Hongkongers have used the most peaceful ways possible to call for change. 2 million citizens took to the street to demand political reforms. 200,000 demonstrators formed the 25-mile ‘Hong Kong Way”’across the city. People lit up the city’s mountaintops with protest demands. But the government will not listen, and instead suppresses demonstrators – be they children, elderly, pregnant women, journalists – with excessive police violence. It is understandable, then, that tensions escalate.
It is my belief, however, that all those clashes could have been avoided by – and the political dilemma can only be resolved with – genuine political reform. The democratisation experiences of South Korea and Taiwan echo this. Before universal suffrage, protesters used both violent and nonviolent action in their cause. Afterwards, the use of violence vanished. This is because democracy is the only way for people to see hope in the system.
You’ve found a perhaps surprising ally in the current US administration. What value and risks for you feel solidarity from different international contexts can hold?
JW: The support for freedoms can be found in many countries. The authoritarian threat from China is real to all of them. Soon after President Xi Jinping came to power, China became increasingly hostile on an international level. President Xi leverages economic shares for overseas political influence, tramples upon our human-rights standards and institutions, praises the superiority of the authoritarian regimes over democracies through propaganda programmes, and bends international communities to his political will. In other words, the authoritarian threat is at their doorstep, which is why they stand with Hong Kong.
JN: Solidarity from the International community, especially foreign governments, often comes with strings attached. It is often driven and confounded by commercial, diplomatic or geopolitical motives. At the same time, Hong Kong is a tiny city and we don’t have the luxury to be picky with international allies and only to accept support from those with whom we see eye-to-eye on policy issues. And so we take whatever we can get, but always do so with our eyes wide open.
Why are booksellers, writers and publishers seen as such a threat (that is, as a threat to undemocratic or authoritarian governance)?
JW: Under digital authoritarianism, China has established successful ways of censoring. For printed materials, the cost is much higher. Making use of that loophole, many liberal scholars and political dissidents use books as an essential medium of disseminating critical voices. Under the legal protection of One Country Two Systems, many independent booksellers choose to set up bookstores to sell sensitive books to travellers from China. Most of these books criticise China’s governance. That is why the Beijing authority has begun to close this loophole in recent years, kidnapping and imprisoning booksellers like Gui Minhai.
JN: The abduction of booksellers in 2015 was a watershed moment for civil society in Hong Kong. It was a wakeup call – that we had been operating with a false sense of security, and that the perceived firewall separating the city from mainland China was an illusion. The incident gave me and a few like-minded writers the impetus to found PEN Hong Kong in 2016, to defend free expression and promote solidarity among writers, publishers and booksellers.
The blunt act of aggression was motivated by Beijing’s fear of the spread of subversive literature from Hong Kong to mainland China, which exposed not only the regime’s ruthlessness but also its insecurity.
Jason, how does this book sit in relation to your first three titles, which form something of a trilogy on Hong Kong’s development?
JN: In Umbrellas in Bloom, the last of my trilogy, I made several predictions about Hong Kong’s political future in the post-Umbrella Movement era, including attacks on civil society and further deterioration of freedoms. With the eruption of mass protests in 2019, and the subsequent fallout, the worst possible scenarios I feared came to pass. As such, Unfree Speech is an ominous postscript to my trilogy.
But Unfree Speech is not all grim. It chronicles Joshua’s spectacular rise from a teenage activist to an international human rights icon. It is also a manual on what all of us can do to counter Communist China’s threat to global democracy. Despite its sombre message and sense of urgency, the book is a source of hope, inspiration and positivity.
Joshua, do you feel old? (If not, when will you?)
JW: Well, during 2019, I did have that kind of feeling, as more and more underaged protesters risked their lives and struggled for the city’s future. At the age of ten, kids are supposed to have happy childhoods, playing video games after school and hanging out with friends. But under authoritarian rule, children have to fight for their future and safeguard the city’s vanishing liberties. They were unlawfully assaulted, injured, sacrificed, disappeared. Some have had to flee to other countries, looking for political asylum. That is not the life that our kids are supposed to live. They are young, but they suffer most. That is also the drive that pushes me to do more.
Joshua Wong was born in 1996. He has been named by TIME, Fortune, Prospect and Forbes as one of the world’s most influential leaders. In 2018 he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his leading role in the Umbrella Movement. He is Secretary-General of Demosistō, a pro-democracy organisation which he founded in 2016 that advocates for self-determination for Hong Kong. Joshua came onto the political scene in 2011 aged 14, when he founded Scholarism and successfully protested against the enforcement of Chinese National Education in Hong Kong. He has been arrested numerous times for his protesting and activism and has served over 100 days in jail. He has been the subject of two documentaries, including the Netflix original, Joshua: Teenager vs Superpower. This is the first time his work has been published in English.
Jason Y. Ng is a leading non-fiction writer in Hong Kong and the author of three acclaimed books charting Hong Kong’s post-colonial development, Hong Kong State of Mind, No City for Slow Men, and Umbrellas in Bloom. He is also a lawyer, activist, columnist, and former president of PEN Hong Kong. Ng has covered Joshua’s story from its beginnings in 2011, and has continued to report and advocate for his cause ever since.
Interview by Will Forrester, Editor.