An Orwellian “reign of terror” has descended on Hong Kong, says pro-democracy activist and former legislator Leung Kwok-hung, also known as “Long Hair.”
Hong Kong authorities have arrested pro-democracy activists like 23-year-old Agnes Chow and Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai; disqualified pro-democracy candidates; and postponed elections for a year, citing coronavirus dangers.
For many Hongkongers, including Leung Kwok-hung, it was shocking to see how swiftly Beijing pushed through the national security law. The law is many times more draconian than the proposed extradition bill that brought a quarter of Hong Kong’s entire population to the streets last year.
Leung has been at the epicenter of the pro-democracy movement for years, and he’s well-known in Hong Kong for his unorthodox methods.
He co-founded Hong Kong’s League of Social Democrats and served as a Hong Kong legislator for six years.
Under the new law, he could be arrested for talking to us, but he’s chosen to speak out nonetheless.
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Long Hair, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders. It’s a very difficult situation in Hong Kong right now when the world looks in, certainly us in the U.S. and other countries, my home country, Canada. It looks like a very, very difficult situation, and you are in the thick of things underground. You’ve been a Legislative Council member for many years. You’ve been very active in politics, and I think it’s fair to say, you’ve been on the forefront of trying to preserve or create freedoms for Hongkongers. Tell me, what is the situation on the ground as we speak?
Leung Kwok-hung: Actually we are in a status—you can call it a reign of terror. But the terror of course, compared to what happened in the mainland, is not as harsh as what happened in mainland, but it is the beginning, since the imposition of the [national] security law in Hong Kong.
Mr. Jekielek: When you are talking to people on the street, basically people in your community, what is it that they’re telling you? What is it that you’re seeing out there right now?
Mr. Leung: I think it happened so quickly so that not many people can understand because the imposition of the national security law actually started in May when that National [People’s] Congress assembled in Beijing, and then they started the whole legislation and imposition, so the people were shocked. And now they are still in the same situation, it’s shocking. In 2003, the Chinese authority tried to make the legislation Article 23 in Hong Kong. At that time there were more than half million people who took to the street, and then they [the CCP] retreated.
I need to remind you, the chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, said about a few months ago, she thought that, at that time, she would not start any procedure of legislation of Article 23 to emphasize that she would not have the support of the Legislative Council and the people of Hong Kong. So, that is what she tried to convince us: “Forget about it. I will not do it.” And all of a sudden, if I remember correctly, it started from April when a lot of Chinese officials and loyalists to the Communist Party in Hong Kong talked about a loophole of the state security in Hong Kong, so they started to say that maybe there should be some kind of legislation on of this security law. It took less than two months and then the whole thing was done. It’s stunning.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s absolutely incredible. Something just struck me as you were speaking. You and actually 14 other quite high profile pro-democracy, pro-freedom activists were arrested in April. This was, of course, before the national security law. Would you think there’s some connection?
Mr. Leung: Oh, yes. I think it’s a signal that they will not tolerate any kind of civil disobedience in Hong Kong and also, since those who were arrested, they were legislators or former legislators. It shows that at that time, Beijing had already considered it the time for a crackdown, to a certain extent.
Mr. Jekielek: In May, you were being asked to respond to the charges. And I think your quote was, “I understand the government is rubbish.”
Mr. Leung: Yes. Well, if any regime tries to arrest people who just try to hold peaceful demonstrations or peaceful procession, I think it’s outrageous. Why? Because at that time, hundreds of thousands of people wanted to take to the street, but the police refused to grant a license for the procession. That’s why we say, “Okay. Now it’s the time for us to exercise our rights.” How can you stop people—hundreds of thousands of people. If you call them illegal or unlawful, where’s the law? This is rule of law; not rule by law. It’s a matter of whether the people of Hong Kong can exercise the right to freedom of assembly. Since then, I have been arrested three times for the same offense.
Mr. Jekielek: Tell me, how is it that we’re talking to each other right now if you’ve been arrested so many times even in the last few months?
Mr. Leung: Since last June when the movement to fight for freedom started, I think by now, more than 9000 Hong Kong [citizens] have been arrested. It’s a lot. It’s a lot. More than 9000. So for me, I think I’m quite lucky to a certain extent that I wasn’t arrested on more severe charges like Jimmy Lai. He didn’t do anything. He’s running a newspaper or publication group, but he was arrested for “collusion with foreign [forces].” This is outrageous.
Mr. Jekielek: What is the significance of this arrest? What do you think it means in a bigger sense, because this is probably the highest-profile arrest?
Mr. Leung: I think I need to make sure you understand: A lot of those individuals who are quite prominent or quite well-known, political activists, legislators, or former legislators, have been followed by some agents for almost 24 hours. It’s a threat.
When I was preparing for this interview, I just now watched a live broadcast on Facebook about a legislator who was followed by strangers for two days. He approached those people who were in a vehicle and [they] drove towards him, and he was slightly injured. But what can you do? The policemen were there but they couldn’t do anything about it. I think it’s still to the imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong. So, to a certain extent, it opened the gate for them to just walk in. Before the imposition, if we found out that we were followed by some of these strangers, we would report it to the media and police because it’s not right for any person who tried to enforce their law in Hong Kong. Now, after the imposition of the national security law in Hong Kong, of course it is lawful for them to do so.
Mr. Jekielek: It creates a kind of atmosphere of fear. I think this is kind of what you’re telling me. And frankly, [among] our journalists—we also have a couple of our journalists that are also being followed, at least those are the ones that noticed, so I understand what you’re talking about very clearly.
Mr. Leung: The article of the law of the People’s Republic of China on safeguarding national security in Hong Kong—Article 62, “This law shall prevail where provisions of the local laws of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region are inconsistent with this law.” This law will override the [Hong Kong] Basic Law.
There’s Article 65, “The power of interpretation of this Law shall be vested in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.” And Article 60, “The acts performed in the course of duty by the Office for Safeguarding National Security of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and its staff in accordance with this Law shall not be subject to the jurisdiction of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. In the course of performing duty, a holder of an identification document or a document of certification issued by the Office and the articles including vehicles used by the holder shall not be subject to inspection, search or detention by law enforcement officers of the Region. The Office and its staff shall enjoy other rights and immunities provided by laws of the Region.”
When you go through the articles, you know that the consequence of the imposition of the [national] security law in Hong Kong actually is like the rule of law in Hong Kong does not exist anymore, because [the Hong Kong national security law is] above the [Hong Kong] Basic Law and the law of Hong Kong and even the jurisdiction of Hong Kong. So it’s very difficult. Hong Kong will become an Orwellian society, gradually. Have you read the novel by George Orwell, “1984”? That’s what will happen here, gradually.
Mr. Jekielek: I’ve never heard those articles. I’ve read through the national security law, but when you were reading them just now, especially the last one which tells us that the officers basically have unrestricted power to operate in Hong Kong, it sent a chill up my spine because I don’t know how else one could read it than how you described it?
Mr. Leung: It’s black and white. You can go on the internet, and you can find out very easily if you type in the keywords. I’m not telling lies. It’s the plain truth.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely, absolutely. You’re saying that we’re heading, gradually, into an Orwellian “1984” type society. First of all, do you expect that press freedom will be hit?
Mr. Leung: Yes. First of all, after two decades of buying of, or investment in, the major TV stations and [other media], the newspapers, actually, I think Apple Daily is the only one who still has the guts and also got the independence to say what they’d like to say. That is quite bad. So that’s why Jimmy Lai became the target of political persecution, in the name of “prosecution,” because by doing so, there will be no platform for the opposition to voice out their demand. I’m not saying that Hong Kong is a totalitarian society now, but there is self-censorship. If you go through the details in the articles of the national security law in Hong Kong, you’ll feel cheated. So what would you do? You would [ask yourself], “Should I say that or should I not say that?” These are self-censorship.
This is like if I talk to you right now, maybe something I said will get me into trouble. Of course I’ll be concerned, and I will try to not say something that I think will put me in a very, very devastating situation. That is [similar to] the novel by George Orwell, “Animal Farm” or “1984.” Hey, Big Brother’s watching you.
What I mean is … I think it might be a very strange feeling for the Hong Kong people when they watch movies or read literature or one day watch the news that somewhere, some place, some time, some of those dissidents were arrested and prosecuted, but now it begins to happen in Hong Kong. A lot of Hong Kong people would never think that Jimmy Lai, such a figure, would be arrested and harassed openly. It’s like a show: 200 strong policemen marched into a media group, and they searched it. It’s to show the whole world and the Hong Kong people that the Hong Kong government is really reckless and powerful. It’s just like mobs and gangsters—they need to kill people on the streets in order to threaten the people.
It’s different from what happened in China. In China, the Chinese authorities try to keep it a secret. Nobody could witness the arrest of Mr. Liu Xiaobo. Since Liu Xiaobo was arrested, he will never be in any kind of news coverage. It’s a different tactic, different strategy. Now in Hong Kong, it’s like a circus or like what happened in the dark ages around the world. They execute people and hang their head on a post in order to make an example of someone who is eager to fight, to resist.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s very hard to fathom. And I wanted to say, there is one other media that’s for sure independent in Hong Kong, [The Epoch Times].
Mr. Leung: I think maybe they’re the second target. I wish them good luck. We all know that.
Mr. Jekielek: I have to ask you this. I’m very curious. Your background originally—and correct me if I’m wrong but this is what I understand—you ascribed to a kind of Maoist philosophy many years ago, right?
Mr. Leung: When I was a student, a secondary student, I found out that Maoism is a big lie. Actually, I’m a socialist. I became a Trotskyite. Since then, my political position, what I think is a democratic socialist. I think socialism should be conducted in a real democracy. Otherwise, there’s no way to achieve the goal of socialism anyway.
Mr. Jekielek: Interesting. It might be surprising to some people when you say, “Well, I have socialist beliefs,” but to talk about “1984” the way you do, because people equate the two, right?
Mr. Leung: Yes. But George Orwell, actually, he was a socialist. After he went to Spain and took part in the [Spanish] Civil War, [his political views] shifted. But I think at the end of the day, he was a liberal socialist anyway. And also “1984” didn’t just criticize the Soviet Union. George Orwell was quite aware of the rising of the USA, and he thought that the USA may become some kind of totalitarian regime as well.
This kind of political analysis—in my mind, we’re in the era of globalization, and in globalization actually there aren’t many major players: USA, China, EU. Globalization has been dominated by big powers like G8 [inaudible]. The USA is the leader of the Five Eyes alliance, and [there’s] EU and China. So I think it’s time for us to think about what the future is for human beings. … And as I said before, capitalism, I think we need to figure out whether it is a system that can have any kind of subsisting, [a future in the long term]. That’s what I say.
Mr. Jekielek: Frankly, “1984” is a very important parable with tons of lessons to be learned, doesn’t matter whether it’s Soviet Union, the United States, the EU, or certainly China.
Mr. Leung: Yes. We cannot just look up to the leaders and the big powers. This is one of [my] thoughts when I … think about the future of Hong Kong. We cannot just rely on the USA to impose sanctions to help out the situation in Hong Kong. We all know that.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about that. For example, Iran. The U.S. has some pretty strict and harsh sanctions, but not more than what exists in Hong Kong. Let’s not talk just about the U.S. Let’s talk about how there’re a lot of international powers right now are thinking about, hopefully, how to help Hongkongers—the Hongkongers that seek freedom. Is sanctions a good tool for this in your mind?
Mr. Leung: I think most of the country, when they think about sanctions, they’re thinking about whether the sanctions will be harmful to their own business community in the first place. I don’t think any leaders on this Earth will say, “I’m going to do the sanctions even though the economy or the business community will be damaged by doing so.” … It’s up to the political leaders to decide whether they will impose the sanctions. Who on this Earth can impose anything on a guy called Donald Trump? No, I don’t think so. I don’t think so.
So I think what happened here is that they arrested Jimmy Lai for the alleged offenses of collusion with foreign countries—how can he do so? He cannot. Maybe he had a 15-minute talk with Donald Trump or Vice President Pence, If [when] you talk, you will get punished, practically, you will not talk.
Mr. Jekielek: Hopefully, our talk doesn’t involve any punishment, but I, frankly, worry about things like that, which is one of the reasons I’m not talking with a lot of people in Hong Kong right now.
Mr. Leung: It’s a threat. It’s like a whitewash—reign of terror. It’s quite scary. That’s why I tried to emphasize the novel, “1984,” because this is a very good example of how everything you talked about will be in the record. So the freedom of speech will [result in] your loss of freedom. So it’s like a paradox—if you exercise a part of your rights, you will lose all of your rights. You’ll end up in a prison. Just like the disqualifications of the candidates, or a person like me, disqualified a few years ago when I was a legislator.
Talking about elections, if you elect an officer who’s trying to do the censorship of the candidates—What is free elections? That means the candidates are free to say what they say in order to gain the support of the voters. If you cannot say what you [want to] say, or if you said [something] and then you cannot take part in the election, it’s a paradox. You can say what you like if you’re not a candidate for the office, but once you try to take part in an election as a candidate, they will check all your records to see whether you qualify, whether you have said something that gives them an excuse to disqualify you.
For example, the voters will cast their vote [based on] whether a person like me or a person like you is supportive of the [Hong Kong] Basic Law or loyal to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. It’s for the voters to say; it’s not for the officers to say. The officers, they are just puppets—political puppets. How can they get the knowledge? That is the problem with the so-called “state security.”
My fear is very simple: State security should be the security of the civilians or citizens of a country in the first place. So that implies the freedom of the citizens comes first instead of the [decisions by] the regime. That is very, very simple. Of the people, by the people, for the people.
Mr. Jekielek: I understand. And it’s very interesting because it seems like this law has also reached out into America actually because we have Samuel Chu who has been a big supporter of freedom in Hong Kong helping connect to legislators. You have him now being targeted using the national security law.
Mr. Leung: Yes. According to the [national] security law, Chinese citizen or not, … if the prosecutor thinks that you have violated any articles of the [national] security law, you are then subject to punishment. If they can arrest you, they will arrest you no matter where you are. For example, anyone in the U.S. or Singapore, if … the [Hong Kong] authority thinks that they have done something which is against the law, they will try to enforce the law. That means if they can arrest you, they will arrest you.
Mr. Jekielek: We’ve had this raid on the Apple Daily, and Jimmy Lai was arrested. We’ve had a number of other people arrested in Hong Kong. What do you think will happen next?
Mr. Leung: I think they will concentrate on Jimmy Lai’s case in the first place because it’s a very, very significant case. [In my opinion,] there are four kinds of offenses: collusion with foreign [forces], subversion, secession, and terrorist activity. There is one offense that has not been used: subversion. So maybe they will try to find examples of “subversion.” The [charge of] terrorist activity, they have done.
According to my experience with the attitude of the CCP, once their strategy has been figured out, they will have some kind of policy and legislation, and then maybe they will try to arrest someone to show that the [national] security law is needed for the Chinese Communist regime to safeguard their national security there [in Hong Kong].
I don’t know, I can’t say much about it. I think maybe they will do it. I can’t say that, I cannot predict it, but first of all, they will concentrate on Jimmy Lai’s case. Up until now, Jimmy Lai hasn’t been charged. He was arrested and then he was on bail, and I think their investigation of the alleged offense or alleged crime will carry on. And I think maybe, more people will be arrested, related to his case.
Mr. Jekielek: Are you concerned about being put in jail again?
Mr. Leung: I don’t know yet. But talking about it when you have to face the fact of “safeguarding national security law” in Hong Kong, it’s very difficult to guess. See what happened to Mr. Liu Xiaobo, and you can guess. What had he done? Basically, he just tried to use a peaceful way to arouse the attention of the Hong Kong people, that there should be a constitutional reform in China, democracy in China, and he was arrested. Before his arrest, he was surrounded by a bunch of officers from the Ministry of State Security, 24 hours. So how can he possibly do anything?
It’s a matter of whether the Chinese Communist Party will decide to show the whole world that if anyone wants to enjoy the freedom of speech, the freedom of association, etc., they will be punished as an example of the necessity of their legislation and enactment as so-called “safeguarding the national security law.”
Mr. Jekielek: What do you think it would take? Again, you’re talking about the sort of gradual descent into an Orwellian society. What would it take to stop that from happening, to keep the freedoms in Hong Kong?
Mr. Leung: First of all, we need to have hope, and we need not to scare ourselves to death. We should try hard to exercise our rights as usual. For example, if after this interview, I get arrested—
Mr. Jekielek: I hope not.
Mr. Leung: If I think like that, I will not talk to you then about a lot of things. You know what I mean? But when I think about this, I was quite upset or felt [that it’s] ridiculous because about four decades ago, I usually worked hard for activities in support of those political activists or sometimes political prisoners in China. So for Wei Jingsheng, I remember the first time I was arrested and sentenced to jail is because I organized a march, an assembly, in support of Wei Jingsheng and in protest of the arrest of Wei Jingsheng, and condemned the crackdown on the “democracy war” in Beijing that a time. So for me, it seems that after 40 years, [this] might be something like what happened to Wei Jingsheng at that time.
And talking about Mr. Wang Dan, he was a prominent student leader during the pro-democracy movement in China, and he was arrested. So it seems to me that I can hardly imagine something will happen in Hong Kong now. Maybe someone will support us and say, “Release so-and-so. Release Jimmy Lai,” something like this. Maybe Amnesty International will be quite busy [working on] the release of political prisoners or prisoners of conscience in Hong Kong. It’s very sad and real for me. Usually, we watch TV and see someone around the world who was arrested by their government—that is my feeling.
Mr. Jekielek: Now, as you’re describing the situation, it’s kind of like actually just going about your business with the freedoms you had before almost becomes a subversive act in itself.
Mr. Leung: Yes. But talking about something related to religion—freedom of religion. To a certain extent, those major leaders of different religions in Hong Kong didn’t say anything against nor in protest of the imposition of the safeguarding national security law in Hong Kong. You see what happened in China? The boss of Hong Kong and Macau Affairs [Office], Mr. Xia Baolong, [is] actually quite famous for ordering the tearing down of the cross on the rooftop of a church in China. He is one of those who got sanctioned [by the U.S.]. So think about that—when those religious leaders keep their mouth shut to [avoid] troubles, do they understand what happened in China?
Mr. Jekielek: One notable exception, I think, is now retired Cardinal Zen.
Mr. Leung: Yes. I knew him for a long time. But that’s what I said—it’s like people feel threatened and within the whole community, silence. That is the major effect that the tyrant wants: just to keep your mouth shut. The imposition of safeguarding national security law in Hong Kong is like that. You feel threatened.
Mr. Jekielek: Long Hair, it’s been such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Leung: Yes, hope to talk to you next time.
Mr. Jekielek: I look forward to that, and please stay safe.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.