A close look at the global context for Hong Kong's struggle

June 16, 2020

Unfree Speech: The threat to Global Democracy & Why We Must Act, Now
By Joshua Wong & Jason Y Ng
Penguin Books, 2020
268pp, $19.99

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who first rose to prominence at the head of the Scolaricism movement in 2011–12, was sentenced to six months jail in 2017 after the Hong Kong Department of Justice successfully appealed to increase his sentence from 80 hours community service. His sentence was for the crime of unlawful assembly due to his role in the 2014 Umbrella movement.

In collaboration with author and activist Jason Y Ng, Unfree Speech is Wong's account of these events. The book is split into three parts — his upbringing and rise to prominence as an activist, a journal of his time in prison and a systematic analysis of the current situation and a call to defend democracy from the threats it faces globally.

Born in 1996, a year before the British handed their former colony of Hong Kong back to China with the promise that the Chinese government would respect Hong Kong’s autonomous status for the next 50 years, Wong grew up in a Hong Kong in which Beijing’s incursions on democratic rights were an ever-present threat.

Raised by Christian parents who married just weeks after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, Wong grew up with a strong social conscience and a desire to challenge injustice wherever he saw it. The first part of the book hones in on Wong as a person and his aspirations, allowing the reader to understand the background and context of who he is, and why he was inclined to become an activist. It also zooms in on his early days as an activist, and his growing level of infamy among the political leaders in Hong Kong.

The second part of the book, by contrast, is a diary of Wong’s experience in the prison system. Written in short spurts, each chapter captures his primary thoughts on each particular day. These chapters are not confined to describing his political musings and communication with various parties that acted as a bridge between him and the outside world.

Wong is candid about his experience in jail. He was honest in stating that the conditions in jail were not as bad as other parts of the world, and credits that to the work of a former pro-democracy member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo). This allowed him to focus on his cause and mission, despite the prison system containing elements of reformation which are meant to steer inmates back to the path of conformity with the ideals of the Chinese state.

In the third and final part of the book, the writers masterfully and systematically expose how the Chinese government is trying to exert influence in the world to fulfill its geopolitical  ambitions. They use the example of a frog in a boiling pot to illustrate the carefully crafted, gradual and subtle modus operandi of the Chinese government.

They fire off an ominous warning about how Hong Kong is a key battleground that can set precedence on how the global community can either acquiesce or take a stand against China’s increasing political, financial and military influence on the globe. This can be better understood in the context of Hong Kong's recent history.

In 1984 the British and Chinese governments negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Under the Sino-British agreement, the Chinese government would recognise the autonomy of the former colony until 2047 under the One Country, Two Systems arrangement.

While guaranteeing a measure of freedom, this re-arrangement ultimately left the people of Hong Kong between a rock and a hard place. Central to control of the country is the LegCo, which is not a fully elected body. This enables pro-Beijing real estate and other business interests to dominate the government, with the Chinese government further threatening to erode its autonomy.

Furthermore, Hong Kong is notorious for its economic inequality and unaffordable housing, thanks to its pursuit of neoliberal policies. However, the Chinese government's attempts to further erode Hong Kong's autonomy led Wong and other pro-democracy activists to lobby the United States government in 2019 during the recent wave of pro-democracy protests.

Turning to the US government for help is problematic, especially considering the hypocrisy of the Trump administration in claiming to support democracy in Hong Kong while supporting the same style of police brutality against Black Lives Matters protests in the US. However, this misstep should not take anything away from the need to support the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.

The fears of activists about the repressive Chinese regime are well founded, especially considering the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang and occupation of Tibet, as well as its claim on Taiwan.

Ultimately, how the people of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau choose to engage with China should always be on their own terms and not used as a bargaining chip in power struggles between the US and China. That is why the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, despite its flaws, deserves our support and solidarity.

Unfree Speech is a journey of a young activist who embodies the desires of everyday youth around the world, challenges the common stereotype of modern-day youth being incompetent and apathetic, and instead presents the stark contrast that youth are interested in and concerned about their futures.


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