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Hong Kong’s ‘Iron Lady’ Emily Lau: ‘The Game Is Not Over’

In Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists are being rounded up, journalists are being attacked, and the election system has been gutted.

As the Chinese Communist Party continues to strip away Hong Kong’s freedoms, many are choosing exile.

But not Emily Lau.

A fierce champion of democratic principles, she served for nearly two decades on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council and helmed Hong Kong’s leading pro-democracy party from 2012 to 2016.

As the horizon darkens, what will become of Hong Kong, this once-celebrated center of global finance? And what motivates Emily Lau to stand her ground—despite the devastating risks?

Jan Jekielek: Emily Lau, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.

Emily Lau: Thank you. Thank you, Jan.

Mr. Jekielek: Emily, I wish we could be talking under better circumstances. The last time we actually talked on camera, I believe, was just under a year ago when this Hong Kong national security law was just about to go into effect.

Now, we’re a year on. Recently, there have been multiple sentencings. We had Jimmy Lai sentenced for 14 months, Martin Lee who’s in his 80s, I guess it’s some sort of suspended sentence, Joshua Wong for his role in the commemoration of June 4 protests, and many others. This is where we’re at. Why don’t you tell me, how are things in Hong Kong now from your perspective?

Ms. Lau: Of course, things are terrible and very difficult, and there are members of my party and many, many more activists who have lost their liberty. As we speak, they are all locked up in jail. They have not yet been properly charged, but the court refused to give them bail. Our fear is that many, many of these people are going to be in detention indefinitely for months or for years. It is very, very distressing.

Of course, it’s a very heavy pressure on their families and friends and also on members of the public. Also, it seems the arrests and prosecutions are not going to stop. More people could get arrested in the coming days, weeks, and months, and people have warned me many times that I could be a target. It is very, very distressing.

Coming Monday, there will be another big trial. There will be 10 defendants. Some are actually already locked up and others like my colleagues, Albert Ho, Sin Chung-kai, all members of my party, I guess they are going to be locked up as well.

Today, the Commissioner of Police came out to talk about fake news, wishing maybe to arrest journalists or close down newspapers, and the big target, of course, is Apple Daily. Today, there’s a lady journalist from The Epoch Times who was attacked quite brutally and taken to casualty in the hospital, and I think many journalists were flabbergasted.

How can you attack a journalist like that in broad daylight? And then of course, The Epoch Times’ printing press had been attacked not too long ago.

So people in journalism, people in politics, activists, people are very, very alarmed and very scared. You’re looking at a very, very anxious, very apprehensive, and very unhappy city. Because of COVID, we’re not allowed to gather in public and so people cannot have a chance to even peacefully express their views. Jan, you’re looking at a very, very unhappy, very angry city.

Mr. Jekielek: Emily, these are very dark times absolutely. Let’s go through some of the things a little deeper that you just talked about. Let’s start actually with press freedom.

You recently spoke with the head of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club on your show, and also you’ve been, of course, watching the state of press freedom. You started back in 1984. You were a journalist in Hong Kong in very, very different times. How is the state of press freedom in Hong Kong right now?

Ms. Lau: I think there may be a little bit of press freedom but not much more. In terms of our ranking, the global ranking, we used to rank up very high, and now we just kept falling and falling.

As I said, many journalists are under a lot of pressure because many news organizations are now owned by pro-communist businesspeople. Their top priority is to not upset Beijing and so they would tell their journalists what things they should not cover. Of course, some journalists themselves are worried, so they practice self-censorship.

Not too long ago, you saw hundreds of policemen marching into Apple Daily and then, of course, Jimmy Lai, the owner, lost his liberty. Who knows how long Jimmy will be locked up? People are very, very anxious.

Yesterday, Keith Richburg, the president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and also the director of the Hong Kong University’s Media Studies Center where he teaches journalism, said that journalists are under tremendous pressure and in particular, he singled out Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), which of course is a government department but also a public broadcaster.

Many things have happened to RTHK, because they have a new director who’s not a broadcaster, just an administrative officer, and many of their programs have been dropped, including one that interviews me and others. The director said, no, we can’t show that, drop it and drop that. Dropped so many programs, and people resigned, and people were fired. As Keith said yesterday, a journalist was fired for asking tough questions of Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

RTHK [and others are] under tremendous pressure, but Keith said, he will continue to tell his students that they must not give up, they must try to do their best, but he thinks that now journalism in Hong Kong is probably like some of the other very authoritarian countries. We are suffering this “death by a thousand cuts.” It is a very, very grim prospect.

Mr. Jekielek: One thing that just struck me, when we first met in person in Hong Kong, I guess at the end of 2019, there were so many journalists from outside the city. There were many journalists covering the protests inside and foreign journalists. When coronavirus hit, this completely changed. At the moment, it seems like it’s very difficult to actually come into Hong Kong at all, and perhaps as a journalist. Is COVID being weaponized here as a way to prevent external coverage of what’s happening there?

Ms. Lau: Yes, I think Keith mentioned that yesterday and he did say that because of COVID, there are very heavy restrictions on who can enter Hong Kong, there are restrictions on other countries, so many people cannot come. Of course, they do it by Zoom or by other means and so they continue to operate.

I think one big problem is that many Hong Kong people who used to talk to the media, whether it’s local or foreign, now they’re not talking. Even if journalists can come to Hong Kong, even if you can come to Hong Kong, you’d probably find that very few people are willing to talk to you. That is the atmosphere and of course, we can’t blame people.

We have to understand the pressure they are under because if they get the knock on the door at 5 a.m., no one is going to be able to help them. No one. If I get this knock on the door tomorrow morning, you can’t help me. Nobody can help me. We understand why some people say, “Please delete my name. I no longer exist. Don’t call me anymore.” If they say that, you have to understand.

Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely and Emily, this is one of the reasons, I think, I took so long in trying to reach out to you because basically, I’m frankly concerned a bit about you. Tell me, what is it that makes you feel the courage to do this interview?

Ms. Lau: I don’t know. Actually, I’ve been doing quite a number of interviews, so I’m not just doing this one. I just would not allow myself to be intimidated into silence, but neither do I think that I’m OK, I’m untouchable—no way. But we have a saying in Chinese: “You all go to die once.”

If you’re prepared for that, and if we look at the suffering and the pressure of other activists, whether it is in other countries, in mainland China and all that, their courage and their perseverance, then we say, “We are not lesser beings.” Of course, we don’t want to be persecuted, we don’t want to be tortured or killed, but still, we have to stand up with dignity to defend what we believe in, [and] to take the consequences—that I know.

Mr. Jekielek: You’re clearly a very, very important voice for Hong Kong right now. One of the things that I was looking at is this whole judiciary reality that you were talking about earlier, how you have actually numerous activists just in limbo, haven’t been charged, and it’s not really even clear if they’re going to stay there.

It’s almost as if the court system is somehow being weaponized or isn’t as independent as it once was, that’s on the surface. Hong Kong’s judiciary used to be stellar, I guess you would say, a model for others. What is the status now in your view?

Ms. Lau: If you ask some people, particularly the young people, I think they will say the independence of the judiciary is dead; no more rule of law in Hong Kong. I don’t think I will go that far.

We all understand the judges, who are humans, are under a lot of pressure like the rest of us. Some of their decisions upset Hong Kong people a lot. Likewise, sometimes when they let some people off, those decisions upset the pro-Beijing camp. It is very, very bad and people are really losing their confidence in the courts, but then they are all that we’ve got.

Recently, the former chair of my party, Wu Chi-wai, who’s been locked up like many others, his 92-year-old father died. We asked for permission [for him] to come out to attend the funeral service. The Correctional Services department head said no, you can’t come out, we’ll let you do it through Zoom. Wu Chi-wai said, no way, that’s very disrespectful to my father.

Then some people suggested, maybe you should write to the Chinese government. I said, no. I said Chi-wai doesn’t want to ask for mercy. He’s just asking for his right. The following day, he went to court, and it is his right to ask the judge whether he could be given bail to attend his father’s funeral service, and the judge agreed. Of course, people were relieved.

I think the judges, like the rest of us, are there for the whole world to see, whether they have completely collapsed, whether the judiciary will not be able to defend the people’s human rights, whether that’s true or not.

Of course, we still have foreign judges sitting on our court of final appeal, and if these judges see that there’s no more independence of the judiciary, I think they will leave and that will be, of course, a very big blow because they are precedents, which is in the Basic Law. They are there to show the confidence of the international community in Hong Kong’s judiciary.

But if all the judges say, no way, we are leaving, then what sort of a message would they be sending to the world? I think we are watching, you are watching, and all these foreign judges are also watching to see how far things would degenerate.

Mr. Jekielek: We’ve just talked about the judiciary and rule of law here. In the U.S. system, as people often say, it’s divided into three parts: the executive, legislative, and judicial. Let’s look at these other two, the realities, how they’ve changed over the past year with the legislative side of things.

As we were talking, again about a year ago or a bit earlier, there were these unprecedently attended district elections where all sorts of people showed up. It was a huge win from the perspective of participation of people in this very local democratic process in Hong Kong. Things have changed since then. Where are things that now given all of these realities?

Ms. Lau: I think the district council elections that you mentioned were held in November 2019. To everybody’s surprise, there was such a huge, huge turnout, over 70 percent, which is totally unprecedented in Hong Kong history. It is just a district election. These councils have no real power.

But there was such a huge turnout and the pro-democracy camp, of course, scored a landslide victory, seizing control of 17 out of 18 district councils. That, of course, was also unprecedented because before that, all the 18 councils were controlled by the pro-Beijing camp.

I guess that sent a very, very worrying signal to Beijing. A few months after that, September 2020, will be the legislative council election. They fear, maybe rightly, that there could be a repeat performance. If there is such a landslide swing to the pro-democracy camp, then our people, the democrats with a small d, will control the Legislative Council.

Of course they’re not going to allow that to happen, so they halted the election using COVID as the excuse, and then a few months later, Beijing just overhauled the whole system—dismantled it, restructured it. It’s very complicated. You need an encyclopedia to understand what happened. I’m not going to try to explain it to you. But the long and short of it is they’re going to be in total control.

There will be elections coming up in September, December, and March next year, but only “patriots” will be allowed to run, and only “patriots” will be allowed to win, and only “patriots” will be allowed to administer Hong Kong. So who are the “patriots?” You have to ask President Xi Jinping.

Mr. Jekielek: These are the “patriots” according to Xi Jinping, clearly people who are endorsed by the Chinese Communist Party.

Ms. Lau: Yes. There’s no real definition. Some people have said that actually, many of these patriots have dual nationality, or maybe triple or quadruple nationality, but that doesn’t seem to be a problem. I guess, you are a “patriot” if you follow the party line, if you don’t speak against the party.

But in Hong Kong, my party hasn’t supported independence. We never supported using violence to overthrow the government. But they treat us like everybody else, no distinction. So are we “patriots?” We don’t know.

Now, they ask our members to contest in the upcoming elections, but some people say, no way, this is not a real election. Why do you want to take part in that? So that’s the discussion that we’re having. I think the electoral system, the political system, has been altered so much that Hong Kong people’s voices will no longer be heard. It is very sad.

We’ve never had democracy. But in the past, the limited direct elections that we had, the conduct of that was OK, was open and fair. That’s why I took part. I stood in seven elections. I’ve never lost an election, and those elections that I stood in were OK. I did it with dignity. But now, this one, I said, “How can I join? It is very demeaning. It’s humiliating.”

Then Carrie Lam took me to task. She didn’t name me but she said that this person who said that doesn’t know democracy, doesn’t know about elections. Me—I don’t know? I stood seven times, she stood once and only a committee of 1,200 elected her, and then she said that I don’t know democracy. She said, you have to be able to withstand humiliation.

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about the executive. For those in our audience that might not know, Carrie Lam is the chief executive in Hong Kong to this day. How does that work? Is there any free element to this part of the Hong Kong government structure?

Ms. Lau: I think that now, most Hong Kong people understand, sadly, that it is not the chief executive who will be able to call the shots. It’s all up to Beijing. Actually, it does not matter whether it’s Carrie Lam or “Carrie Chan” or “Carrie Lee” who is chief executive. Beijing will give out the orders and they will be implemented.

This is not “One country, two systems,” it’s not Hong Kong people running Hong Kong. That’s the promise of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the basic law. That’s what we’re telling the Chinese government. They must honor the promises of the deal that they made with the British government, the basic law that they foisted on us. These are all the promises written there. But now it seems they are just evaporating before our very eyes.

Mr. Jekielek: You are actually, frankly, a critic of the Sino-British Joint Declaration itself way back when, I guess in 1984.

Ms. Lau: Yes, but what can we do? “There is no alternative,” to quote Maggie Thatcher. To give it to the Chinese government, they signed a deal with a foreign power about how they would run part of their country. They signed that in ’97. After the change of sovereignty, in the initial years, things were OK. China, Beijing, left us alone.

But now, they have comprehensive jurisdiction, no more high degree of autonomy, no more freedoms, no more personal safety, and no more rule of law. These are all the things that made Hong Kong so different.

As I said, we’ve never had democracy but the level of freedom, personal safety, and the rule of law that we’ve enjoyed for so many years was much higher than in many places which have periodic elections to choose their government. That’s the irony of Hong Kong.

In those days, the government was prepared to listen to the courts. When the courts ruled that they were wrong, that government would accept it. But now, it seems the court will, 99 percent of the time, be on the side of the administration, so who is there to defend the ordinary people like myself?

Mr. Jekielek: One of the effects—and this is something we actually talked about, I remember, when we spoke last—was the impact of the loss of these freedoms and safety on the economy and how Hong Kong has for years been perceived, for example, by the Heritage Foundation, as you know, at the top of the level of economic freedom. Basically, all sorts of business would come to Hong Kong, a lot of the foreign direct investment into China was coming through Hong Kong. 

Right now, from what I understand, they’ve actually been removed from that economic freedom list altogether and just are considered a part of China, so that’s a huge change. Are you feeling that in any way? Are Hongkongers experiencing that somehow now?

Ms. Lau: The economy is not very good and to a large extent, it’s because of COVID, but it is slowly recovering. [Many of] the people refuse to be vaccinated, so that’s a problem for Carrie Lam and for the Chinese government.

But for the foreign business people, and I’ve been talking to some, they are looking at the situation closely. Some of them say, we go anywhere that there is money to be made, and that is their big concern, but they are also looking at the national security law quite closely. 

Some of them told me that if the government here uses the national security law to target foreign business people and professionals, or maybe arrest them and charge them, that would be the signal, the time, for many to leave. They are looking at it. They are making money, but if they see the law used to target foreigners, as well as local activists, then some may think that’s the time to get out.

I don’t know whether that will happen but that’s what I’ve been told, and it’s true that they are concerned about it, but like many others, they dare not publicly express their worry.

Mr. Jekielek: Are you ever thinking about leaving or do you know people who are thinking of leaving? There are countries like the UK that have friendly immigration policies. Are there any barriers to that? How is that looking?

Ms. Lau: The British National Overseas [BNO] passport held by millions of Hong Kong people, last year, the British government decided to have a policy to allow them to move to the UK, stay for five years, and in the sixth year, they can stay and apply for citizenship, which is widely welcomed.

Many people feel very relieved because they have an option. Otherwise, if they want to move to another country, it may be very expensive to get an investor immigrant visa. So that is a good thing. Also, Canada and Australia also have a friendly immigration policy for those who do not want to [or] who cannot move to the UK. So these are options which I think are good.

I have no plans to go anywhere. I don’t have a BNO. There are many leaving with their families and with their money. If people choose to leave, fine. They are free. They should be allowed to protect their families.

The government is not happy with people leaving, and they are threatening to maybe take away some of their basic rights. We’ll see what happens. But I guess for those who are leaving, probably they don’t mind, they don’t care. If they want to go, they go.

Mr. Jekielek: I guess the question is, is this right now the end of everything that Hong Kong always promised to be? This is what a lot of us are asking ourselves, people that love Hong Kong but are watching from a distance, things just going in a very, very dark way.

Ms. Lau: I think you’re right to say that. Actually, things have happened quite fast. We’re talking about just one or two years. This is really a salutary lesson to people in all countries that you may live in a place which seems safe, seems free, and within a short time, it can all disappear. It is very sad.

But I can tell you, the game is not over. No way. We will continue. We will continue to struggle to defend our free lifestyles and freedoms but in a peaceful and nonviolent way, and within the confines of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.

But if the authorities think otherwise, come and arrest us, and lock us up, we take the consequences. People are getting locked up and killed every day all over the world, fighting for what they believe in. Human history is filled with rivers of blood and dead bodies. It’s very sad. But we need people who are prepared to defend what they believe in and pay the price.

Mr. Jekielek: Emily Lau, on that note, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.

Ms. Lau: Thank you very much.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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