[FULL TRANSCRIPT BELOW] “A lot of my friends that I grew up with, that I met during my activism, a lot of them are either in jail or they're in exile,” says Frances Hui. She joined the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong when she was only 14 years old. Now she’s living in exile in the United States.
While the Chinese regime is “putting millions of Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps, when they are also doing that to Tibetans, when they're also putting thousands of Hong Kongers in jail, they realize none of these human rights abuses comes [at] any cost … That bar for accountability keeps getting lower and lower,” Ms. Hui says.
In this episode, we discuss her remarkable story, the Chinese regime’s attempts to brainwash people and rewrite history, and her hopes and fears for her city.
“I was fortunate enough that I experienced that golden era of Hong Kong. I got to be engaged in civil society. I [could] go to the streets and fight for my own freedom … But a lot of the young people now ... they don't get to grow up in that environment,” Ms. Hui says. “We are going to have a generation that [doesn't] know what's right or wrong.”
FULL TRANSCRIPTJan Jekielek: Frances Hui, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Frances Hui: Thank you for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: I'm honored to have you here.
Ms. Hui: It's my honor too.
Mr. Jekielek: You're the first official Hong Kong asylee in America as I understand it, and I’m very happy that happened. You started in the pro-democracy movement very early in life, and it's an amazing story. Please tell me about this.
Ms. Hui: I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and I grew up as a normal kid. I learned a lot about how Hong Kong is fairly different from the rest of China. I grew up learning that we have freedom of speech, judicial independence, and rule of law. I was actually inspired by a bunch of students that went into the streets and protested against an education scheme, and one of the leaders was Joshua Wong.
I joined Joshua Wong's organization called Scholarism. It was basically a bunch of students rallying on the streets at that time. Since then I have always been an activist for Hong Kong, and this dates back to when I was 14-years-old. I just continued to speak up for political issues in Hong Kong and continued to be very active in the pro-democracy movement.
Later on, I came to the United States to study journalism. It's a very long story how I became an asylee from Hong Kong, but eventually I was banned by Hong Kong. I understood there were threats coming to me if I continued to stay in Hong Kong, so I had to leave Hong Kong in 2020.
Mr. Jekielek: First of all, not every 14-year-old is motivated to stand up for their rights. How did that happen?
Ms. Hui: That's an interesting question. Some people ask me if something happened in my family that motivated me. To be honest, I don't have a background of growing up in a family full of activists. My family is a normal family. Seeing the protests on the streets and learning about the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre when I was 10-years-old was shocking. I remember that before I was 10-years-old, I simply thought I was Chinese.
I was proud about the Beijing Olympics. Hong Kong was part of China and we're no different from mainland Chinese. But learning about the Tiananmen Square massacre, and seeing all those pictures and videos of bloody bodies getting run over by tanks was shocking to me. They were just students who wanted democratic change for their country. They were truly nation-loving people, and they wanted freedom for themselves. It was just shocking to know that when I was 10-years-old.
My first time going to a public rally was actually the Tiananmen Square massacre vigil in Hong Kong, which is no longer a thing in Hong Kong anymore. It was truly amazing to experience being in the crowd surrounded by people who have the same values, chanting the same slogan of wanting freedom and democracy, and wanting accountability. It was really amazing. That opened my eyes that we are truly privileged in Hong Kong to speak up for ourselves, and for the people who don't have a voice.
Being able to protest and to rally out in the streets is really a privilege. I learned about that and I figured out that I should pay more attention to what's happening around me. I realized the government was trying to integrate us back into China through education. I would be the first generation to experience the so-called patriotic education if that education scheme was passed. That inspired me to go into the streets and I eventually joined the first movement with Scholarism.
Mr. Jekielek: Many viewers of this show always view patriotic education as something very positive. In fact, there's a lack of it here in this country. That's what they would say, and they would be right to say that. Why did you see patriotic education as a problem?
Ms. Hui: It's a little different. In China, the scheme that they propose is an erasure of history. They don't talk about the Tiananmen Square massacre. They don't talk about the Cultural Revolution. If they ever talked about it, they would brush off their atrocities and create a positive spin on what they had done. The kind of patriotic education that Chinese are bringing to Hongkongers is that you have to speak Mandarin.
They say that there are model answers for history, which is not true. They would also tell you it's good that we're putting Muslims in concentration camps. We're just educating them to erase extremists and terrorists. Those are not the accurate versions of history that we should learn. It's certainly brainwashing us to believe that China is a good country that we should all belong to. That's strange to me.
Mr. Jekielek: It's all framing things from the perspective of the Chinese Communist Party, that it is a great benevolent entity that we should all be happy with.
Ms. Hui: The CCP is above all. It's like in religion where you have to believe there's a model answer in order to get a perfect score on your paper. That's how it works, and that's why we call it brainwashing education. It shouldn't be imposed in Hong Kong. This was in 2012 when we still had a pretty good degree of freedom, and we were able to pressure the government to suspend the program.
But now, it's already implemented in Hong Kong. There's nothing that we can do about it. They have already implemented that through this national security education. All students; elementary school, middle school, high school, and even college level, have to take those classes in order to graduate. There has been a huge decline in Hong Kong's situation.
Mr. Jekielek: It's incredible. Then we had the Umbrella Movement. We are changing course here in 2012, with the implementation of the national security law. That really flipped everything.
Ms. Hui: Yes, in 2020.
Mr. Jekielek: Why were you worrying about your future at the hands of the authorities? You would go to these protests and it wasn't threatening, at least at the beginning. But then things changed. I want to get a sense of that.
Ms. Hui: Every time we go onto the streets, there is one part we fear that this is going to happen. We fear that the education scheme is going to move forward and my generation and the next generation will grow up in a very different environment, and learn a different version of history. But there is also hope that through our work and our activism, there could be change. That's why that motivates us to go into the streets every time and to speak up about these issues.
But what really discouraged us is we realized no matter how hard we try, there's nothing that we can control. That happened to Hongkongers when the national security law came down to Hong Kong in 2020. It was a law that was forcibly imposed by the CCP. No Hongkongers were consulted about it. It didn't go through the legislative process to get passed. It all came down in just one month, and then they started arresting people on the very first day.
As soon as we realized this a huge threat, they had already arrested the 47 leading figures in Hong Kong who kept the movement moving ahead. Those are friends of mine that I grew up with throughout my activism in Hong Kong. We learned that all of them went to jail for speaking the truth and fighting for freedom. That's when we realized maybe there are other ways that we can continue to fight for freedom. One of the solutions that I got is to go into exile and continue to speak up about Hong Kong on an international level.
Mr. Jekielek: Do you remember some specific moments from 2012 to 2020 where you really felt something had really changed, and something had really transformed? Economically, Hong Kong was one of the freest societies in the world. Now, it's not at all, and the same with freedom of speech. There once was incredible freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
Ms. Hui: I would say the Hong Kong government's strategy was to put you in room temperature water and cook you up without you realizing it. In 2019, we still thought that there was hope that we could change things. That was the last fight of the Hongkongers. We really felt that we could spark some strong resistance against the Chinese government. We did, because millions of Hongkongers went into the streets.
This had never happened before, and a lot of young people went to the streets. That included some of my classmates who never cared about politics before. It was really hopeful at that time. Before that, we had already seen different integration schemes proposed by the government. They were immigration scheme policies, making it easy for mainland Chinese to reside in Hong Kong.
Mr. Jekielek: This would change the culture of free thought.
Ms. Hui: Yes. They tried to undermine the values of Cantonese and Hong Kong culture while we were growing up. There was also the disappearance of bookstore owners simply because they were selling books about Xi Jinping and the CCP. Five of them disappeared out of sight. That was before 2019. There were a lot of things warning Hong Kong people that something was wrong. But 2019 was the moment that people finally woke up and said, "This is enough. We can't do this anymore. You should fulfill your promises."
During the handover, there was a promise that Hong Kong people should have the right to vote for their leaders and the chief executive, and to elect the chief executive. That never happened, and that was the last fight for freedom in Hong Kong.
Mr. Jekielek: It's a difficult thing to think about. I traveled to Hong Kong in 2019, and met with some of the amazing people who were actively working to foster freedom, and who were putting everything on the line.
Ms. Hui: The movement was joined by people from all walks of life. There were lawyers, journalists, and students, you name it. Businessmen and leaders in different industries all came together. They understood that if Hong Kong didn’t have freedom, judicial independence, and the rule of law, it was not going to be Hong Kong anymore. The most special thing about Hong Kong is being an international financial center, and the freedom that comes with that. That's why everyone was stepping out and saying, "This is enough."
Mr. Jekielek: My parents came from Communist Poland, and they had to get out in the 1970s. That's how I ended up in Canada, and then later here, and it changed my life. It also changed their lives. In these situations, there were people that had your awareness, and millions of Hongkongers did also, but there were also a lot of people that had a different view as well.
I remember there were stores and coffee shops that were pro-protest, and then there were other ones which were anti-protest. It was very interesting. What do you think about the people who wanted to keep the status quo and said, "This isn't so bad. It's going to be okay. Maybe we even want the mainland approach." That was a substantial number of people.
Ms. Hui: It was, yes. First of all, I don't blame them. It's a result of the CCP repressing people who fight for freedom and democracy. A lot of times they attack pro-democracy protestors. A lot of these status quo people are in the older generation. They experienced the British colonization. They feel like having their original background back, and they feel more connected to China. I can understand that.
They don't want to change. They think Hong Kong is good. They have the freedom to go around, and it's not as strict as Mainland China. They still have the freedom to do whatever they want. But the kind of liberty that we want is the right to speak the truth and not have to experience persecution, just because we are speaking the truth. They don’t understand that. They only care about their personal lives not being violated. But at the point when their privacy is violated, it's already too late.
Mr. Jekielek: This is a big issue in America right now. There are big questions about the value of freedom of speech. Looking at your Hong Kong experience, how important is freedom of speech?
Ms. Hui: A lot of people who are against this, they don't understand that future generations are going to suffer if they don't grow up in an environment where they can truly have freedom of speech. I was fortunate enough that I experienced that golden era of Hong Kong where I could be engaged in civil society. I could go into the streets and fight for my own freedom, and really fight for it by standing on the front line. But a lot of the young people now that are my age will not get to grow up in that environment.
They don't get to learn about it. We are going to have a generation that doesn't know what is right or wrong. They don't fight for themselves. They are going to go along with what the government is telling them or giving them. Freedom of speech is also the practice of continuing to think and have critical thinking and questioning the status quo. What the CCP is doing in Hong Kong is telling the world that they are going to demolish this free society.
They think, “No matter what the world is saying, we will take over the city, just like we are going to take over the world with our authoritarian values.” There are a lot of lessons that people can learn from the Hong Kong movement, but also from what other communities are experiencing, like the Uyghurs, the Tibetans, and even Taiwanese and Chinese citizens themselves. The CCP is becoming a huge threat to democratic values in the world.
Mr. Jekielek: You actually work with a group that is looking to help free some of these 47 Hong Kongers, and many more that have been arrested since then. Please tell me about that, and what the idea is behind that.
Ms. Hui: I work for the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, which is a nonprofit that's based in Washington, DC and also in London. We are calling for the release of political prisoners in Hong Kong. We continue to shine a light on the situation of Hong Kong in the international arena and to make sure that politicians prioritize human rights when they're crafting policies for China.
Mr. Jekielek: There's a lot of talk these days about the U.S. has gone too far. We've been too involved in other places and there's a lot of problems back home. These are arguments that need to be seriously considered and dealt with. Why are we looking outside? Why would we want to influence other countries? They have different values. Why would we put human rights restrictions on a country?
Ms. Hui: I've heard that a lot. People are saying, "We have our own domestic issues. We have a lot to deal with ourselves. Why bother to talk about foreign policy?" But it's not an either/or situation. You can still care about domestic issues, but also know there are authoritarian regimes around us trying to undermine freedom and democracy. The core value of America is democracy.
There are young people my age that I grew up with that are sitting in jail right now, or they have to leave their home for a foreign country and cut ties with their families. Because we have freedom and we have democracy in America, it also means that we have the privilege to speak up for the voiceless and those who are suffering under authoritarian regimes. At the same time, the reason why we talk about human rights in foreign policy, especially toward China, is because now we're friends with China.
We continue to make trade with China and continue the economic interactions and diplomatic engagement with China, while they are putting millions of Uyghurs Muslims in concentration camps, while they are also doing that to Tibetans, and while they're also putting thousands of Hongkongers in jail. The CCP realizes none of these human rights abuses comes with any cost. They are not held accountable, so they continue. That bar for accountability keeps getting lower and lower.
In the U.S., we keep saying there is nothing that we can do because it's a foreign country. No, there is something that you can do by telling them there is a consequence of doing all these things to your citizens. There is a consequence for transnational repression. There is a consequence when you abuse human rights. There is a way for us to stop this and come back to the table and tell China that if they are not going to improve or change the way they are working, then there's no discussion here.
Mr. Jekielek: That would be a bold move because that really hasn't happened a lot, except perhaps in trade. That was the one area where I've seen activity like that.
Ms. Hui: One of the problems is that we rely a lot on China too. We have developed a lot of economic reliance on China in the past decades, and that's why it's hard for us to cut ties. That's one of the problems that we have to deal with in the future.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. I have a friend, a Falun Gong practitioner named Charles Lee. When he was in a Chinese labor camp, he was actually making Homer Simpson slippers, this kind of slipper where the mouth of Homer goes around your foot basically, like fun slippers. You wouldn't think that they were being made in a labor camp by someone who is a prisoner of conscience.
That's also a very real cost. A lot of companies think, “I just don't want to know exactly why I'm getting such a good deal on this merchandise,’ because there has been this attitude, “I just don't want to know the details, but I'm getting the cheap goods.” Hence, we have this trillion-dollar trade deficit, which is a massive problem itself.
Ms. Hui: You also remind me that in China, there are religious persecutions too. It's not only about us trying to fight for democracy, but also for people who have different religious practices. They are trying to push them down—Catholics, Christians in general, and Falun Gong, all sorts of different religions are under the oppression of the CCP. They want the people to see the CCP as a religion, and Xi Jinping is the leader of this religion. Even for different religions that exist in China, there is a term called synthesization, which is adapting their religious values with the Chinese society values.
Mr. Jekielek: I'll just jump in, Communist Party values, correct?
Ms. Hui: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: It's synthesization, but it really means Chinese Communist Party values.
Ms. Hui: Yes. It's normal when a religious practitioner says, "I grew up in a Catholic family." When these traditional religions come to China, there are some adaptations with the local culture in order to get close to the people. That makes sense. But synthesization completely changes the values of this religion into CCP values. That's a different thing.
Mr. Jekielek: Basically the Chinese Communist Party values have to be the values that everyone follows. If you’re not, then we're going to follow them.
Ms. Hui: Or control your church, or demolish your church, or put you in jail, actually. That's exactly what is happening. The Vatican also has a private deal with China. If they continue to compromise the values that we learn from the Bible, it's no longer there. They are basically compromising everything that's important in the Bible.
Mr. Jekielek: This is an important discussion we're having here. What has been the reaction in Washington, DC, as you do your advocacy?
Ms. Hui: We're not doing enough. There is so much more that American politicians can do to challenge the situation in how we are dealing with China and how we talk about the situation in Hong Kong. There is a lot more we can do. But I do see there is increasing attention on the CCP's threats to world democracy and our own economy. I really hope that we're not going back to the time where we said, "This is not my matter." More importantly, we need to hold China accountable in all sorts of different ways.
Mr. Jekielek: American Thought Leaders episodes are translated into Chinese and make it into places like Hong Kong and Communist China. Do you have a message for your friends that are now in jail, or friends back in Hong Kong?
Ms. Hui: A lot of my friends that I grew up with and that I met during my activism are either in jail or they're in exile. It's really sad for this generation of Hongkongers. My generation is going through this, and I can't stress enough how I admire the courage of them to be standing on the front line. A lot of them, even when they have the opportunity to leave like I did, they decided to stay in Hong Kong because they understand that this is where they are going to stay forever, and they're going to devote their life there.
I was truly inspired by Jimmy Lai before he went to jail and before his bail was rejected. He said he came from China at a young age and developed his own business there, and then got all sorts of freedom and built this pro-democracy newspaper himself. Before he went to jail, he said, "I owe my freedom to Hong Kong because I didn't have that before. I owe it, and now I'm paying it back." He had all kinds of ways to leave Hong Kong, but he decided to stay because he thought the freedom he had was all because of Hong Kong. He's paying back the city.
I thought, “That's right.” The freedom that I get here right now is actually from my friends who sacrificed for it. It's my responsibility to continue to speak up for them. It's the responsibility of many Hongkongers who left Hong Kong to continue to speak up for those who don't have a voice, and to let people know there are still a thousand of them that are locked behind bars simply because they fought for freedom and spoke the truth.
I would really thank them for what they have done and endured in these periods, and I really hope that one day we can unite in Hong Kong and sing songs and eat the food that we like and just live a normal life as teenagers or young people should have. I really long for the day that we can see each other.
Mr. Jekielek: Frances Hui, it's such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Ms. Hui: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to speak to you too.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining Frances Hui and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I'm your host, Jan Jekielek.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.