The Erosion of Hong Kong’s Freedoms: Pro-Democracy Activist Wilson Leung

June 9, 2020 Updated: June 17, 2020

With the impending new Hong Kong national security law, will there be a mass exodus from the city? How are Hong Kong-ers navigating this difficult situation?

How might the new law criminalize interactions with foreigners as “foreign interference”?

And, why is a sizable portion of the Hong Kong population sympathetic to Beijing?

In this episode, we sit down with Hong Kong commercial lawyer and pro-democracy activist Wilson Leung.

This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.

Jan Jekielek: Wilson Leung, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.

Wilson Leung: Thank you for having me.

Mr. Jekielek: Wilson, you’re in Hong Kong. You describe yourself as a pro-democracy activist, and it’s certainly true through everything I know about you, yet you never expected to be in this position from what I can tell.

Mr. Leung: That’s right. I work as a commercial lawyer, and I was very happy to keep just doing that up to 2014, when the Umbrella Movement protest happened in Hong Kong. Now, before that, I was just happy to carry on with my day to day work as a commercial lawyer and occasionally participating in protests and marches for the Democratic Movement, but it wasn’t really a thing that I integrated into my life. It was something that I do during the annual Tiananmen vigil; I’ll go show up during the annual July 1 democracy march. I’ll show up but it’s not something I really did in my life.

It was really the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests that, for me and I think for a lot of Hong Kongers who are active in the movement now, was really awakening. It was really a wake-up call that it’s not enough that you just go to these marches every once in a while and then go home after that. … It’s such an important thing that it’s something that you have to do constantly on a day to day or week to week basis, and so I think that was really the wake-up call for me and for a lot of the people I know, that it’s actually something that we need to do with a much greater urgency.

Mr. Jekielek:  … We had this extradition bill that created a huge movement in Hong Kong last year. Then, of course, that took us into coronavirus time—everything shutting down. Now we have this national security law which I’ve seen you have been talking about a lot on social media. Where are we at with this national security law?

Mr. Leung: Well, the stage we’re at is that the Chinese parliament, the rubber-stamp parliament up in Beijing, has approved the framework that this so-called national security law is now going to be imposed in Hong Kong. What they’re now doing up in Beijing is drafting the details of the law, and when it’s done, and we expect that somewhere between one and two months from now, it’s just simply going to be imposed on Hong Kong without input from Hong Kong’s own parliament.

And so everyone’s just waiting to see exactly how bad it will be. It’s extremely worrying. It’s going to impose these concepts such as so-called subversion, so-called foreign interference, and we know that these are concepts used in mainland China to suppress dissent, to jail activists, jail journalists, jail human rights lawyers, and everyone’s just waiting to see how bad the latest draft will be for Hong Kong. Will it be very bad or very, very bad?

Mr. Jekielek: Let’s talk about the foreign interference part, because this is interesting. You’re actually Canadian. You spent a number of years growing up in Canada, actually in my hometown Toronto, after your family emigrated, and then you came back. So now, … this foreign interference aspect, what does it mean for you?

Mr. Leung: Well, Hong Kong has always been a very international city. It’s the crossroads between East and West. You have Hong Kong people immigrating, coming back, studying abroad, coming back, and of course, you have a lot of international companies and people from all over coming to work in Hong Kong, and that includes businesses, but also NGOs, international media, and of course a robust presence from the consular community here. All this is extremely normal for such an international financial center.

What Beijing now is doing is trying to elevate that somehow and say, “The reason why we have all these huge protests in 2014, in 2019, we’ve got the answer, and the answer is that there is a separatist movement/terrorist movement, and it’s all being funded and organized by these mysterious foreign forces,” as they keep saying. That’s one of the bogeymen that they’ve now identified as the cause of all their problems. In this new national security law, they’re going to do something, as they say, about it. The problem is that this is very likely to root out or stamp out what should be very normal activities, such as interactions between Hong Kong democracy activists and international civil society. The aim of Beijing is really to snuff all of that out.

Mr. Jekielek: What are the implications for you, communicating with family or friends back in Canada, for example?

Mr. Leung: It will become a lot more risky to communicate to friends and family, but also to, for example, international NGOs that we often communicate with on various human rights issues. We see from what’s happening in the mainland that [forgign interference] is often defined very widely. Even something as innocent as providing information on the human rights situation in Hong Kong may become something that is a target.

We can also see that from the situation with the Uyghurs. The Uyghurs who are abroad, sometimes they will communicate with, or for example, send money back to the relatives who live in Xinjiang. But often what happens is that’s then identified by the Chinese authorities as some sort of criminal activity, or even some sort of terrorist activity, leading to detention of the Uyghurs who are still in Xinjiang.

Mr. Jekielek: There’s a bit of a hint actually for Hong Kong in this national anthem law about … the direction at least that Beijing is heading with the programming [of] this national security law.

Mr. Leung:  That’s right. Instead of trying to really assuage the concerns of Hong Kong people, instead of trying to provide for greater autonomy, greater rights, Beijing is heading in the opposite direction where it’s going to enforce obedience through laws—through harsh laws, punishments, and also through some sort of patriotic education where they can control the content of what the younger generation will learn about. There’s a suite of programs in the pipeline. One of these is the national anthem law that’s just been passed which criminalizes any so-called insult to the PRC national anthem, and it will be punishable by up to three years in prison. That’s one of the steps. The other step that’s in the pipeline is the national security law. We also have further clampdowns or programs which are planned to instill patriotic thinking on the part of Hong Kong citizens, so it’s looking quite dire for Hong Kong at the moment.

Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned this “patriotic education.” I was just reading today actually, I just glanced at it, but there’s some sort of education that’s going to be happening as early as kindergarten. And “patriotic education” means something different than it would mean in the U.S.

Mr. Leung:  That’s right. “Patriotism” in China’s often used basically as a code word for non-dissent or obedience to the Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party. In democratic countries, you have this concept, a very correct concept that one can be patriotic, but at the same time question the government of the day. In the U.K., for example, the opposition party is officially called the “Loyal Opposition,” and that represents the fact that even if you don’t agree with the government of the day, you’re still someone who’s loyal and patriotic. But in China, that’s the complete opposite, which is if you’re not someone who’s falling in line with the government, with the Communist Party of China, then you’re not a patriot. You’re even a traitor to your race. That’s the sort of concept that looks to be introduced in Hong Kong through the so-called line of patriotic education.

Mr. Jekielek: Give me an example of what you’re seeing or what you’re worried about?

Mr. Leung: It’s anything that questions the official line of history taken by the Communist Party. One recent example is that there was an exam question which was asking about World War II, and the question was, “The Japanese occupation of China, did it have more benefits than harm? Please discuss.” So there’s no prescribed answer, but that was just the question. But the Hong Kong government took that in a very high profile way, complained about the body which set the question, and then eventually had the question canceled, and this was after the exam had already been taken.

We see that not only are you not allowed to give the wrong answers, you’re not even allowed to ask the wrong questions. There’s nothing wrong with the question as such. In fact, in Cambridge University, they had a very similar question about Nazi Germany: “Nazi occupation, good or bad? Please discuss.” And the point is not that you have to be forced into particular view, but it’s something that’s supposed to stimulate your thinking. But in the Chinese government’s view of education, that’s not acceptable. You have to ask the right questions, and you have to give the right answer. Unfortunately, that seems to be the line that’s going to be taken in Hong Kong as well.

Mr. Jekielek: Basically … the answer has to be what the Chinese Communist Party needs it to be.

Mr. Leung: Exactly. So [the narrative is that] the Japanese occupation was bad and it was the Communist Party who did a lot to push back on that. So in aspects like World War II, in aspects like Tiananmen [Square massacre], [these are] taboo subjects in China of course, and increasingly, it’s going to be the case in Hong Kong that students here won’t be able to learn the truth about what happened.

Mr. Jekielek: We just saw that for the first time ever, the [Tiananmen Square massacre memorial event] was canceled by the government, for June 4.

Mr. Leung: That’s right. Hong Kong has been commemorating that for the past 31 years, and it’s a landmark event in Hong Kong. Hundreds of thousands of people lighting candles in a park in central Hong Kong to commemorate the massacre that happened. It’s a huge, peaceful, beautiful event. This was the first year that it was canceled supposedly for public health reasons, but the greater fear is that this might have been the last time we ever see that. With the national security law coming into place, we’re already getting hints from senior Hong Kong and Chinese politicians that in the future, that event may be banned because it calls into question the legitimacy of the one-party rule in China.

Mr. Jekielek: This puts a lot of Hong Kongers in a very difficult situation. I’ve been talking with a lot of people. We had Emily Lau on the show talking about the prospects of people getting these British National [Overseas] passports, which so many Hong Kongers are eligible for, as a way to get out of Hong Kong if these really draconian rules come in place and the rule of law is completely gone. There’s Canadians like yourself that may have options. Some people, of course, will want to stay and do everything they can … and a number of people have already, for example, gone to Taiwan from what I understand. So how is this playing out among the people you’re speaking with? What are people thinking right now? “Am I staying? Are we going to try to fight this out democratically? Is it a lost cause? Are we leaving?” What does this look like?

Mr. Leung: I think there’s a lot of discussion right now and conflicting thoughts, because on the one hand, Hong Kongers are determined to fight for their freedoms, and a lot of us don’t want to abandon our home and to stop fighting. A lot of us are determined to fight until the last breath. There’s a lot of the high profile activists, even though they’re at grave risk of being arrested and imprisoned for a long time, they’ve publicly stated, “I’m going to stand, I’m going to stay and fight.” You really have to admire that because we’re looking at prison terms that are going to be in the order of decades, or 10 years, not a matter of months.

But on the other hand, there’s also another consideration. What is the best way to keep up the fight? Is there a perspective that if it really gets so dire in Hong Kong that any dissent is snuffed out with harsh prison sentences? Then, is there an angle that it’s better to have a tactical retreat to democratic places like Taiwan, Canada, U.K., and so that you can carry on the fight in the long term without being sent to prison as soon as you do any activism for Hong Kong? So it’s a conflict that a lot of people have, their love of the city, their passion for the city, with “How am I going to best carry on the fight?” A lot of people are seriously considering that and really having difficult and painful conversations with themselves and comrades in arms.

Mr. Jekielek: I don’t want to put you on the spot but what are you thinking personally?

Mr. Leung: It is a conflict, and I have to say I haven’t reached any decisions. It’s been a whirlwind of activity, because one of the things about this new national security law is that it was basically sprung as a surprise by Beijing on everyone—a shock. In fact, even the Hong Kong pro-Beijing politicians admitted that they were only informed about Beijing’s decision and plan about 48 hours before it happened. So even they were not in the loop on it, much less other Hong Kongers like myself. So I think a lot of us haven’t really had time to digest and come up with a concrete plan of what to do next.

Mr. Jekielek: … There’s a situation basically where I think the Chinese Communist Party is saying, “Hey, I need you to take sides, and I expect you to take sides.” We saw this kind of stuff with American companies like the NBA, some airlines, hotel chains, and so forth. I just saw that HSBC for example has said, “Yes, we support the national security law.” How do you look at this thing where these corporate interests or even everyone on the street are forced to take a position?

Mr. Leung: This goes back to our earlier discussion about what “patriotism” means to the Chinese government. It’s not enough in their eyes for someone simply to stay silent or have any lingering doubts or stay on the sidelines. In order to be properly “patriotic,” you have to voice out publicly your support for their policies.

The alarming thing is that the Chinese government is exporting this model overseas, so not only just within his own borders, but even Western companies in Western countries themselves have to toe this line. Otherwise, they’ll be punished by Beijing, economically. We saw this last year with the NBA where the Houston Rockets manager tried to voice out support for the Hong Kong protests but he was quickly then slapped down because of pressure from Beijing, and we have huge stars like LeBron James afraid to say anything, and in fact criticizing the Rockets manager for speaking out. We’ve seen big hotel chains like Marriott [and] airlines like American Airlines being forced to toe Beijing’s line, so they had to correct “Taiwan” on the website to “Taiwan, China.” We’ve even seen ridiculous things like Tom Cruise’s new Top Gun movie. Initially, he had a jacket, which had the Taiwan flag and Japan flag, but after pressure from Beijing he had to remove those flags from his jacket before the movie could proceed.

We’re seeing all these things, and of course, the latest manifestation is what you mentioned, Jan: big Western banks such as HSBC and Standard Chartered having to come out publicly to support this draconian national security law. It’s an absurd spectacle where you see these banks coming out to support political positions of the Chinese Communist Party. The world is really suddenly waking up to that and hopefully taking steps so that this is not allowed to spread even further.

Mr. Jekielek: It just struck me, there’s this incredible irony, because this national security law could be very easily used to create huge problems for these international entities in Hong Kong.

Mr. Leung: Yeah, that’s right. One example is actually in China in 2015. There’s a big U.K. hedge fund called the Man Group, and they got into trouble in 2015 when there was a stock market crash in China. Several of their leading executives within China were actually detained on these vague national security concepts. They were suspected of manipulating the market through foreign interference, and some of the top executives were even detained for a number of weeks on that. So we’ve seen that.

Also being Canadian yourself, you know [about] the two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who are still detained in China a year and a half later, again on these vague national security concepts. I think one of the charges is passing state secrets to foreign entities. So there’s a grave danger for any multinational who now sends their citizens to Hong Kong to work with the worsening of relationships between the democratic world and China. Citizens of those countries could easily become the next Michael Kovrig [or] Michael Spavor if they come to work in Hong Kong.

Mr. Jekielek: That particular Canadian situation is so obviously pure political persecution. It’s hard to find as potent an example. I hadn’t even been thinking of that in relation to the national security law in Hong Kong. Tell me, there are still a lot of people in Hong Kong that actually support this from what I understand, and are sympathetic to Beijing at least in what it’s doing, and I find that pretty fascinating given the level of freedom that Hong Kong has been afforded and the threat of that suddenly being taken away.

Mr. Leung: Yeah, that’s right. Of course, it’s a minority. We know from the voting results of the elections that approximately 60 percent are supporters of the pro-democracy camp; the rest are either neutral or in the pro-Beijing segment. But the Chinese Communist Party is very effective at using various concepts, tools, and propaganda efforts in order to build up support.

One of the most effective mechanisms they use is to elide the difference between China as a nation, the Chinese government, and the Chinese Communist Party. They build up this impression that if you support China as a nation, with all its history and culture, then you have to support the Chinese government as well. Conversely, if you’re criticizing the Chinese government, that means you’re criticizing China and not being true to your Chinese roots.

There are a lot of people in Hong Kong who genuinely are proud of being Chinese and who love China, and that’s a great thing. But the problem is that the Chinese government, the party-state, is very good at eliding the difference and making people think that if they support China, they have to support what the Chinese government is doing.

Another aspect is, of course, Beijing has a lot of control over media in Hong Kong, so the Chinese government directly owns quite a number of media outlets—two newspapers, at least two-thirds of the bookstores in Hong Kong, a number of websites. Even the ones they don’t own directly are owned by Beijing-friendly tycoons who will take a friendly line towards Beijing stance. That of course influences the thinking of a lot of people as well. The surprise is not that there are people who support Beijing’s line; I think the surprise is that with all these controls over the media that there are not more people who are in that camp.

Mr. Jekielek: Two things come to mind for me. One of them is, I actually put up in my social media a picture of all the front pages recently when there was this paid pro-national security, pro-Beijing supplement. … [Out of] the eight papers in Hong Kong, five of them had this page supplement, another one had a pro-Beijing message, and only two, Epoch Times and Apple Daily, had “something really bad is happening here,” and a front-page showing the honest situation. So that’s one point. You’re obviously exactly right about this media influence.

Wilson, second question—I’m very curious about this—in places, [for example] you mentioned Xinjiang with the Uyghurs and actually Tibet is another place I’m thinking about, there’s been this active importing of Han Chinese into those regions, basically to dilute the culture, and this has been going on actually for decades. I’m wondering how much of a reality is there that mainland Chinese who obviously have a very, very different mentality predominantly than Hong Kongers who are used to freedom, how much is there that transplanting mainlanders to ship the culture like has been done in Xinjiang or Tibet?

Mr. Leung: Obviously one cannot say that any mainland Chinese who comes to Hong Kong to live must be someone who supports Beijing. There are certainly people who come here and love the democratic or relatively free society. But there is some worry from Hong Kongers … because as you say, one can see that the policies used in Xinjiang and Tibet are to dilute the separate identity that those people have and to have one great united Chinese nation with one loyalty. There is a fear here that might be what Beijing is trying to do, to erode any separate Hong Kong identity, any sense of being different from the rest of China, and to make Hong Kong essentially like a Chinese city. That’s the worry that many Hong Kongers have. Will we be able to preserve our unique characteristics and unique values after all these education policies, immigration policies, and now these laws being imposed? [It’s] a multi-front attack on the things that Hong Kongers feel are important to them.

Mr. Jekielek: … You’re facing a very, very difficult reality.  What keeps you going?

Mr. Leung: I think passion for the city, love for the city. I love Hong Kong; I love the people. Even in the most difficult times, Hong Kongers have a very unique sense of irreverent humor, so we saw that last year in the extradition protest. Even though it’s the darkest of times with lots of police brutality, a lot of … protesters injured [and] arrested, Hong Kongers really kept themselves going with their own irreverent brand of humor and creativity and how they keep up the fight, creating songs. There’s a famous protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong,” lots of artwork, lots of music—a lot of it hilarious satire. So it’s really this Hong Kong spirit that I’m completely in love with, and it’s the thing that keeps me going.

Mr. Jekielek: Do you expect that … once we know the exact details of this national security law, you will be able to achieve the numbers that this extradition law brought into the streets, which were just astounding by any standard—some giant portion of the population?

Mr. Leung: These large scale protests are a lot more difficult now, because last year the Hong Kong Police had still been allowing these protests and giving permits to them, but we’ve seen a big change this year where the police and the authorities are not giving permits to these protests. When protesters do show up, even in a completely peaceful protest, the police have taken really hardline [methods] to suppress the protest—pepper-spraying journalists, bystanders, arresting and detaining, and pressing elderly people to the ground. We see school kids in school uniforms being rounded up and arrested like common criminals. So it’s a strategy of increasing the costs of coming out to protests, and so far [that] has been keeping the numbers down. I think it is a conscious strategy by the Hong Kong government. Even though there’s a lot of opposition, it’s not being reflected in the large scale protests due to these restrictive harsh measures taken by the Hong Kong authorities.

Mr. Jekielek:  I’ve had a number of Hong Kong legislators here on the show from the LegCo and so forth. Of course, they’re the pro-democracy in Hong Kong camp. They have been trying to do all sorts of things recently, basically trying their best, but it seems like an uphill battle, at least that’s the story that I’m hearing. How effective do you think the tools that are available to them could be?

Mr. Leung: Right now, what’s important is the international support. What’s encouraging at the moment is the increased international attention from governments such as the U.S. and the U.K. The U.K. in particular, of course, was the signatory to the Sino-British Joint Declaration. But they’ve taken a relatively passive stance in the past years. They were saying that “Yes, there are some problems with Hong Kong’s autonomy, but by and large, it’s working fine.” But this year, we’ve seen quite a big change. Suddenly, talk of offering a lifeboat for Hong Kong citizens to go and live in the U.K. [with] bipartisan support from both the Labour Party and the Conservative Party in the U.K. There’s some encouraging signs but much more is needed from the world if this new law has any chance of being stopped. So the message that the world needs to send to Beijing is that this is a terrible move and that if you do go ahead with it, there will be concrete consequences in terms of how the world relates to China.

Mr. Jekielek: Wilson, a number of countries—again, this is what I’ve been hearing from people in government and so forth—are hedging their bets. They don’t believe that China can be influenced, and they don’t want to rock the boat. What would you say to those people?

Mr. Leung: If you look at what’s happening in the last few years, one can see that in fact, the Chinese government can be influenced, but it requires one to take a realistic view of the situation and to be prepared to take concrete measures. One can see that, especially in the trade situation between the U.S. and China, it was really because of a threat of actual trade measures being taken by the U.S. that China then sat up and said, “Okay, we’ll give you these concessions.” These [include] increased intellectual property protections, an attempt to alter or improve the trade imbalance, the opening of access to the financial markets. We’ve also had a more recent example in the airlines. China was not letting the U.S. airlines go there, and then the U.S. government was going to impose an equivalent restriction. As soon as that restriction was announced, the Chinese government then backed off. So … they’re not as immovable as one might think. But what’s clear is that mere words are not going to be sufficient to cause any change in Beijing’s approach.

Mr. Jekielek: I was reading recently about this inter-parliamentary coalition. I forget the name right now but something very promising. Legislators from around the world getting together to create a common front. What do you see happening with that? Do you see that as something that could actually have teeth more than talk?

Mr. Leung: Yeah, I think that’s very encouraging, this new Inter-Parliamentary Alliance [on China]. What’s especially encouraging is the high profile of the legislators involved, but also, if you look at their list of advisors and staff, these are people who really understand the China issue, who really understand the Hong Kong issue as well, and they’re not these people who immediately think that “Oh, we just have to have more dialogue and everything will be fine.” There are people who really take a clear-eyed view of the China challenge. From the early signs, it seems that this type of grouping will be effective.

They really have to put pressure on their own governments back home to take a stronger, more robust stance to the Chinese challenge. In particular, there’s some countries in Europe who seem like they’re trying more to take a fence-sitting approach, trying to have friendly relationships with the US [and] China and not rock the boat too much, and I think what this new alliance will do is really put pressure on their governments back home to really take a more robust and energetic line.

Mr. Jekielek: Now that’s wonderful to hear, and I certainly hope it plays out as you say. Any final thoughts before we finish up?

Mr. Leung: Of course I urge the world to really keep watch over Hong Kong [and] keep their eye on the Hong Kong situation. Hong Kong is really at the forefront of this new challenge, this epic battle between the free world and the authoritarian world, and Hong Kong’s the forefront of that battle. It’s where China is really seeing and testing the world’s resolve. If Hong Kong is allowed to fall, this will send a message to China that the world is not prepared to stand up to their expanding authoritarianism. If Hong Kong falls, the next will be Taiwan, then the other democratic countries in the region, and finally, the rest of the free world as well. So please keep watch over us.

Mr. Jekielek: Well, Wilson Leung, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. Leung: Thank you, Jan.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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