A scream. Loud thuds. Then violent shaking as the camera crashes to the ground.
Behind the camera was journalist Gwyneth Ho, livestreaming her own beating as she covered what would later become the Hong Kong protests’ most infamous moment, when a mob of thugs indiscriminately assaulted commuters and protesters inside a train station in July 2019. The attack left her with swollen fingers and a bloodied arm. But she kept the camera rolling, broadcasting the horrific scenes to thousands.
The incident, unfortunate as it was, propelled her to fame. Overnight, Ho became a household name, known as the journalist who got attacked by stick-wielding thugs, only to immediately pick herself up, check to make sure her head hadn’t been cracked open, and continue reporting. People called her “Stand News sister,” a nod to the local news outlet she worked for.
Now the 30-year-old is in jail. She was charged along with nearly 50 other activists last month with subversion, a crime punishable by up to life imprisonment under the Beijing-imposed national security law. Their alleged offense was running in unofficial opposition primaries and “inciting” people to run (or not run) in the city’s legislative elections. Only 11 have been granted bail so far; the others must spend months behind bars before trial, which may not resume till May. (As a result, Ho could not be reached directly for this story.)
Life imprisonment was a risk Ho had weighed carefully when she decided last summer to trade her press vest for a shot at running for office. China’s crackdown on Hong Kong was intensifying, and she saw in opposition politics a way to resist the Communist Party’s authoritarian regime.
“There’s nothing you can do as a journalist to make things happen,” Ho said in an interview (link in Chinese) with the Stand News in July. “You can only wait for a movement to develop and then analyze and report on it. The problem I have now is that I want to see something happen. So what can I do?”
The scope of what she can do now is limited by her present circumstance: detained and awaiting a trial that many expect will deliver a lengthy jail term from a judiciary under intense political pressure. But as with many political prisoners before her, Ho sees her time in detention as a political act, both a way to expose the absurdities of Beijing’s authoritarian regime and to be a visceral embodiment of the democracy movement’s values and sacrifices.
“She wants to use her role as a public figure to symbolize a kind of resistance: being uncompromised, being totally unreserved, to have no reservations about the price, have no reservations about the consequences,” said Brian Leung, an exiled and wanted activist and a close friend of Ho’s. “…what she’s trying to do is to say, ‘I’ve seen through the system, I’ve seen through the oppression, I’ve seen through how the CCP [Communist Party] tries to use fear.'”
“A human being in a time of authoritarianism”
Doing a mic check from the defendants’ dock earlier this month, Ho began singing a song by a local boy band.
“So I say I love you / Only love endures, doesn’t wither,” she crooned (link in Chinese).
It was an incongruous scene: facing the prospect of years behind bars, she chose, of all things, to sing a sappy love tune. As one observer put it (link in Chinese), her actions “used humor (or what one might call ‘craziness’) to expose the hypocrisy and absurdity of the entire proceedings.”
It was also characteristic of how Ho thinks about politics: not just the stuff of elections and governments, but also the actions of ordinary citizens, and how those actions have the potential to shape civil society and social movements. Friends have described Ho as being endlessly curious about how people think and act, always eager to hear their stories and ways of seeing the world.
“She’s very interested in what it means to be a human being in a time of authoritarianism, in a time of darkness,” said Leung. “She’s also very sensitive to the very small bits of human agency, human emotions, and human struggle.”
That acute sensitivity is reflected in her own conduct. For example, Ho wrote from jail (link in Chinese) this month, she believes it’s important to smile for cameras when being arrested, because the small act of defiance allows the individual to shape their own narrative. It also offers clues as to why she sang a boy band song in court: the act shatters the facade of normal protocols in such abnormal times as an authoritarian crackdown. The performance, as a form of expression, is also a kind of resistance, a manifestation of human autonomy—the only thing that “authoritarians wish to dismantle, but is unyielding,” she wrote (link in Chinese) after her first arrest in January.
Small moments of resistance like these are almost like an alternate language of a citizenry in the grips of despotic repression. Where walls of Post-It notes used to be protesters’ weapon of choice, they now display blank Post-It notes as a response to banned speech. People also use code to skirt censorship, buy ads in the pro-democracy Apple Daily, and read the newspaper in public as a form of protest. These acts are among the ways people keep the movement alive even though the mass protests of 2019 may not be seen again soon, and as Beijing shrinks formal avenues of participation.
Ho’s fascination with the human condition—what one friend described as an “anthropologist’s curiosity”—makes her one of the most astute chroniclers of China’s authoritarian assault on Hong Kong, even as she bears the brunt of state repression first-hand. Combining a journalist past, an interest in political philosophy, and her close study of Beijing’s persecution of human rights activists in China, Ho’s writings attempt to make sense of the rapid dismantling of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong. Last year’s legislative elections, in which Ho hoped to run, have been postponed, and new rules approved this month make it impossible for democracy activists like her to run in the future.
“She’s one of the very few politicians who knows how the fabric is woven, how the authoritarian regime creeps into our lives,” said a friend, who asked to remain anonymous. And from that knowledge comes her philosophy on how to resist the authoritarianism on an individual level, to dispel the numbness and hopelessness that come with the stifling oppression.
A unifying philosophy of resistance
Ho and Leung, the exiled activist, emerged from relative obscurity to become two of the most recognizable figures in a largely leaderless movement. They also see parallels in each other, Leung said, and take lessons from one another.
Leung came to prominence just weeks into the 2019 protests, when he and a number of other protesters stormed the city’s legislature that July. He was the only one to unmask himself in the chamber to give a rousing speech, aware of the need to define their actions as a political act, and not a senseless instance of vandalism.
A few weeks later, having fled the city, Leung addressed a mass rally via video link. “An important lesson is that social forces are intricately interconnected as networks. Each node of social force brings about new possibilities of further mobilization and new challenges to the regime,” he said, describing Hong Kongers as bound together in a “community of suffering.”
That concept of interconnectedness, of individual actions rippling throughout society, is key to Ho’s philosophy, too. It perhaps explains why, in spite of her prominence, she is deeply uncomfortable with being typecast as special or exceptional in any way, and loathes being told how much she has “sacrificed” for Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
When friends tried to tell Ho how brave she was to livestream through a mob attack, for example, she wouldn’t hear any of it. “She’ll not let anyone tell her that she’s very brave,” said Y., a friend who got to know Ho through a masters program in Europe they attended together. Ho wants to make clear “this is about all of Hong Kong, this isn’t about me or any one person,” said Y.
In her writings, Ho has described (link in Chinese) Hong Kongers as a single unit “connected to the world [by] an invisible, unbroken thread, suspending our free-falling lives in one place, a floating city in the midst of disappearance.” Writing most recently from prison, she also described (link in Chinese) how she has been shaped by the actions and sacrifices of others: “The people and events and moments in my life that have touched me, shaken me, and inspired me, live in me.”
And though talk of interconnectedness may seem abstract, the idea takes on practical significance under a regime that seeks to atomize society as a form of repression—and offers dispirited Hongkongers a different way to measure the “success” of a protest movement that in the view of some critics, helped hasten the loss of the freedoms the city did have.
“One thing Gwyneth taught me is that it’s not the consequence of the action that defines the action…Anything looks futile if you look at it that way,” said the friend who wished to remain anonymous.
“There isn’t an action where if you do that thing, you suddenly overthrow the CCP, or there’s democracy in Hong Kong. It’s the action itself that defines the action: the sheer experience and the sheer memories of different individuals making their own decisions and sacrifices is reinforcing the community.”