How to fight for democracy when the government keeps throwing you in jail

Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow are out of jail—for now.
Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow are out of jail—for now.
Image: AP Photo/Kin Cheung
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On Friday morning last week, I was walking from my home to the subway station when I was grabbed and forcefully shoved into an unmarked minivan waiting nearby. Before I could get my bearings, I was whisked away to a police station.

Though this was certainly not how I had planned to spend my morning, these events did not entirely shock me. About two months after my last release from state prison, I was being arrested again for participating in unauthorized anti-government protests.

When I started writing this piece, nearly 1,000 Hong Kongers had been arrested in some connection to the anti-extradition bill protests since they began in June. My arrest and detention pales in comparison to the shocking physicalpsychological, and sexual violence inflicted on so many by the Hong Kong Police Force.

But if anything, these attempts to silence us have helped fuel our resistance. The Monday universities were scheduled to start, Hong Kong students refused to attend classes, and protesters have called for a general strike. More protestors were arrested, with more forceful and blatant police violence.

On the day of my arrest, I later learned that Agnes Chow, a fellow member of the pro-democracy advocacy group Demosistō, was also arrested that same morning at her home. We were both charged with violations related to an unauthorized but overwhelmingly peaceful crowd calling out police misconduct outside police headquarters on June 21.

As that Friday wore on, other prominent democracy activists and legislators were arrested, one after another, until a total of eight were rounded up by the end of the day. Some of them, like pro-democracy legislators Jeremy Tam Man-ho and Au Nok-hin, worked on the frontlines of protests to reason with riot police and attempt to de-escalate the conflict.

The motivation behind these round-ups becomes clear when we consider a few things. First, the timing: The Friday arrests occurred one day before a planned protest to mark the fifth anniversary of Beijing’s decision to prevent Hong Kongers from freely electing their own leaders. This sparked the Umbrella Movement, which I helped form in 2014. I have been detained seven times since and have faced multiple charges. Yet many arrests are timed arbitrarily—when we are in our homes, on our usual commute, or at the airport.

Second, consider the names: It’s telling if we look at who is being arrested in these round-ups. Like me, they are all high-profile public supporters of past anti-government, pro-democracy movements.

Following the recent student strikes, Ivan Lam, Demosistō chairperson, and Keith Fong Chung-yin, student union leader of Hong Kong Baptist University, were also taken into custody.

China’s Hong Kong puppet regime, albeit bankrupt of any legitimacy, is still unwilling to cede power to the people. Chief executive Carrie Lam continues to resort to blatant intimidation of the public in a bid to stop the ongoing popular uprisings.

The message remains clear: Stop resisting or face persecution.

We follow no leader

The government is attempting to frame these figures as leaders of the current protests and to make an example of us. This miscalculated tactic is doomed to failure, because decentralization is the defining feature of this movement.

Unlike past protests, like the Umbrella Movement, today’s protests don’t have centralized leaders or figureheads. Instead of rallying behind one leader or leading body, Hong Kong citizens are all working together. In real time, we’re coordinating using online forums, word of mouth and organic, collective action, without the impetus of traditional movement leaders.

I do not lead the Hong Kong protests, because no one person leads the protests. None of us have singular authority to call the shots here. But the government keeps throwing us in jail anyway.

There’s a growing specter looming in the background of these developments: It appears that Lam has not ruled out enacting the Emergency Regulations Ordinance as a means of ending the turmoil of the past several weeks, along with implementing an internet blackout.

The ordinance empowers the chief executive to “make any regulations whatsoever which [s]he may consider desirable in the public interest” in a situation she deems to be “an occasion of emergency or public danger.” Some such measures listed in the law include censorship, arbitrary arrest and detention, entry and search of premises, unlimited control over property, and compulsory labor. Violations of these draconian regulations can be punished by any penalty up to and including life imprisonment.

Needless to say, if the Hong Kong government implements the ordinance, the consequences for Hong Kong society would be dismal.

From horrific incidents of police brutality and complicity in indiscriminate attacks by triads on citizens to arbitrary mass arrests and the banning of demonstrations, the government has employed nearly every weapon in its war chest to intimidate Hong Kongers into silence and to suppress their popular struggle for democracy and freedom. Yet in every instance so far, the government has failed.

Each new attempt of government intimidation and suppression has been met with ever greater outrage and solidarity amongst Hong Kong citizens. Furthermore, the government’s reckless behavior has wreaked irreparable damage to its ability to govern and the legitimacy of the Hong Kong Police Force as a law enforcement agency.

The police force has repeatedly demonstrated an inability and unwillingness to carry out its fundamental mandate: to serve and protect the people of Hong Kong. It has been reduced to a mere instrument of repression subservient to the political agenda of Beijing’s regime in Hong Kong. It has lost all semblance of legitimacy.

If Lam and her regime believe that arresting pro-democracy activists and legislators en masse, implementing the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, or any other repressive measure will result in anything different, they are bound for deep disappointment.

We continue to insist on our five major demands: the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill; the retraction of the characterization of any anti-extradition bill protest as a riot; the unconditional release of all protesters arrested with all charges against them dropped; the establishment of an independent commission to investigate abuses of power by the police; and most importantly, true universal suffrage for Hong Kong. If Lam is truly interested in ending the unrest and salvaging her legacy, she has to implement all five demands—not one less.

Hong Kongers will never surrender, because we have nowhere else to turn.