Frances Hui: “Existing is part of resisting”

Frances Hui at the 2023 Geneva Summit Opening Session at the UN

By Emma Waxlax

Ahead of the 26th anniversary of the Hong Kong Handover on July 1st, I interviewed prominent Hong Kong activist Frances Hui (GS’23). Amidst a worsening crackdown on democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, we discuss Hui’s experiences confronting CCP oppression, the situation in her home city today, and the action needed from the international community to support Hongkongers worldwide. 

You gave an inspiring speech at the 2023 Geneva Summit this past May where you discussed your experience having to leave Hong Kong following the institution of the National Security Law in 2020. As a recent journalism graduate returning from college at the time, what were you envisioning your future would be like in Hong Kong?

Oh, that feels like it’s so long ago, I don’t even really remember what I was thinking. But I really didn’t think I would have to leave Hong Kong because I felt like there were a lot of top-notch activists, people that were more well-known who were doing a lot more. And so, I didn’t feel like I would be a target. At least not at the very beginning.

Honestly, no one knows what they want to do when they first graduate. I just wanted to go home and try to do anything I could. It would be great if I could be a journalist. I remember when I first went to the US to study journalism, I envisioned myself going back to Hong Kong as a foreign correspondent working for say The Washington Post or another prestige news outlet in the US or in the international arena to report on the news about Hong Kong. It’s my biggest dream to be able to put Hong Kong on the headlines of these outlets. And I also remember talking with my friends about contributing to the local districts, doing community work, and starting to tutor classes for minorities in Hong Kong to help them understand what’s going on in the city. I felt like as long as I could be something for the city, I would be happy.

Returning home, like so many graduates, you wanted to chart a new path for yourself. While you were unsure what that would look like, you did know you wanted to be in Hong Kong.

I remember when they had the pro-democracy primary elections for the legislative council, some friends reached out to me and asked: “are you thinking of campaigning for a candidate?” Or, “are you thinking of running as a candidate?” I’d never imagined myself to be in that position. I told my friends that I would rather just focus on the local communities. I want to get to know the people there and find opportunities to serve my community. At that time, I was thinking there would be another time, another election. Now I can do some work to get to know this place better. Maybe I can join the election next time and start my journey into politics. But what I didn’t realize at the time was that those elections would actually be the last time that anyone could be a candidate and run. So, I think that it’s very interesting to look back. I was actually planning for something like that, but there isn’t that possibility anymore.

And while you are certainly serving the Hong Kong community in the diaspora, you had this vision for your life in Hong Kong, which was suddenly taken away from you. Was the news about the National Security Law and your subsequent decision to leave sudden?

I was in Hong Kong for around three months before having to leave. I was back in March 2020. In June, they passed the legislation in Congress back in China and said they were going to impose the National Security Law on Hong Kong effective July 1st. So, there was a one-month window. And I remember when I first heard the news, all of my friends and I were joking about it. I didn’t think it was that serious. I thought it was just them bluffing and trying to scare us and stop us. That’s how they work. They scare you and then you censor yourself. Then protests would disappear in the streets. I even went online on my personal page and said something along the lines of “Hong Kong Independence,” trying to trigger the government. But then when the law was imposed, they started to arrest people on the first day.

They arrested the people in the protests and charged them with the National Security Law. And then I started to hear some of my friends telling me I should really think about if I am at risk staying here. How if I do stay, I should prepare for arrest in the future. Even one of my friends who has insider tips from the government told me: “You are definitely on the list of targets. You should really think of your future.” At the same time, my parents told me they were worried about me every single day when I was in Hong Kong. They were asking me, “when are you leaving? You should start looking at flights and think about this.” And so there was a build up to the point where I actually realized I would be arrested very soon. I came to expect it because some of my friends were already talking to me and my family was pressuring me. Slowly, I realized it’s real and then I just had to look for ways to leave at that time. The sudden part was realizing it’s coming.

In your speech you spoke about looking back on the plane leaving Hong Kong and realizing that there’s a chance you might not return. Now that you’ve been in the US for a bit of time, what do you miss most about Hong Kong?

It’s hard to say what I miss the most. I miss everything. The landscape of mountains, but also the phenomenal view of the city line. I used to hate Hong Kong a lot for being so crowded, so hot and humid. But then when you leave, you start to realize all of these are so familiar to you. Now that you are not able to see them in your life, it’s just weird. It’s strange. Obviously, there’s the food, the people, the connections you have with people. It’s such a good feeling to be surrounded by people that grew up with the same culture. You have similar backgrounds, look alike, and dress alike. I think that’s something you can’t really find, especially as a refugee in a foreign country. It’s something special. And you probably won’t realize how special, how unique it is until you actually leave the place and are not able to see them anymore.

Watch Frances Hui’s speech at the 2023 Geneva Summit here

Have you been forced to cut ties with everyone in Hong Kong since you left?

 I try not to contact my family. With social media it’s so easy to connect with your friends. But for personal communications, like one-on-one thing, I try to avoid doing that with my friends as well.

They’re being heavily repressed in Hong Kong. Despite leaving the city, you haven’t escaped it either. Transnational repression has been in the news recently with the CCP police stations established seemingly across the globe. As an activist in exile, you’ve been a target, even before 2020 as a college student organizing rallies. Can you speak further on the transnational repression you’ve faced abroad?

Transnational repression is actually a very new term to describe it. I think a lot of us had a hard time to describe how extensive Chinese censorship and surveillance is across borders and nations. When I was a student, and when I organized a rally in Boston, I received gun threats, death threats, and some of my personal information was circulated around the Chinese community. I was even followed by a Chinese person from the protest to my dorm building. And even when I called the police, a lot of times, they couldn’t do anything because it was just a one-off incident. It’s not like they’re constantly following me. So, it’s really hard for them to enforce the law. A lot of schools, even my college, didn’t really take it seriously. I remember when I wrote an article about my identity as a Hongkonger, a lot of the Chinese students were upset about it and reported to the school about how it was misleading and biased. I even received death threats because of it from students at Emerson. My school didn’t say anything or do anything even though they were fully aware that a student from Emerson had done it.

There are a lot of different aspects of how China is using these Chinese nationals overseas to watch over dissident activities. A lot of them probably don’t know that they’re working for the government. They only feel like they’re educated or they’ve been hard wired from when they were young that if they see something, they have to report it. A lot of these schools don’t want to piss off their Chinese student population because they are a huge community. And they feel like it would fall under the umbrella of being racist, or discriminating against the Chinese population. But in doing so, they are compromising the safety of these minority students like Hongkongers, Uyghurs, and Tibetan students. They don’t feel safe to talk about what’s going on in their homes. For us, sometimes we just didn’t know if we were overthinking, whether it was something real.

So, it’s recently that people started to pay attention to transnational repression, especially with the secret police stations. I’m obviously very glad that it finally got attention. But I think not only countries’ decision makers should be aware of this. In general, the American public, the international community, and the different education institutions should be aware of these things and understand how they can protect their students that speak up against the Chinese Communist Party and fight for freedom.

It shouldn’t be something so blatant as a secret police station to cause these countries and universities to take action and ensure people like yourself are feeling safe. That being said, there was recently a charge brought against a man who was at least one of the individuals responsible for giving your name to Chinese officials. He was a Massachusetts resident and he was part of the counter protest organized in reaction to your Hong Kong rally in Boston. What significance does this charge have for you? Was it a relief? 

Certainly, it was a relief. I think a lot of us underestimated how extensive this entire campaign was. It could be, as usual, Chinese nationals trying to defend their country. But in fact, there is involvement of the PRC consulates. And actually, that person isn’t the only one who was involved. There are many more who have done a lot of things with regards to spying over the community, and who have then left the US and gone back to China. We didn’t react fast enough, and we lost track of these people. We only got one person out of many of them. I’m still very happy that he’s finally arrested and being held accountable. But at the same time, I think if this could have gotten more attention, more traction, and been taken more seriously and processed in a quicker way, then maybe we would have more people that would be held accountable.

In general, I think we have seen a lot of these charges this year. With the secret police station in New York, I think there are over 100 people that were involved in that case that are being arrested. And then a lot more other charges against these Chinese spies are being brought forward. I’m still very glad and I feel very optimistic that the US is doing something finally and taking them seriously.

I know that in some countries other than the US, they don’t even have laws to hold these people accountable. They don’t even require spies or rather people who work for foreign agencies to register. They don’t have laws to oversee activities like this. I think the international community has to look into this and pass legislation that would be able to control and oversee these activities. This is part of espionage and I don’t understand why there’s a gap in our legal systems.

Such efforts to repress dissidents abroad are telling of how extensive the CCP’s operations are. They’ve certainly ramped up in recent years and correspond to the worsening situation in Hong Kong. With regards to the situation on the ground, what are the key developments in the past few years that allow us to best understand the current reality in the city today?

A lot of people know about the National Security Law that was instituted in 2020. But actually, there’s also a post-colonial law that still exists and is effective in Hong Kong about sedition. It holds a severe maximum sentence. The government is actually using this law to charge people. For instance, they’ve charged individuals who have published children’s books discussing the situation in Hong Kong. And the reason they’re using this law instead of the National Security Law is that they’re trying to keep the number down so that the number of people that are charged under the NSL is not as substantial. It would appear better to the international community. This post-colonial law was imposed when we were still under the ruling of the British. If they really think that British colonialism was so evil, they shouldn’t even be using the law that was passed during the British reign. And the fact that they’re using it shows that they’re using the law as a political tool to crackdown on dissidents.

“Our legal system is completely broken. There’s no rule of law anymore in Hong Kong.”

Even for NSL cases, they have designated judges and prosecutors to handle them. A lot of times they put really heavy sentences on people that were charged under the NSL. If there’s one thing I want to say about the judicial system is that I think the international community has to look into sanctions against prosecutors and judges that are chairing National Security cases in Hong Kong. Even though they will say it’s a breach on the independence of the judiciary, I think they should be held accountable for being complicit with the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government in cracking down on dissidents to silence and create such huge fear in the city.

The government is also going after a lot of other things like religious communities. I personally came from a Catholic family and I grew up in a Catholic community. I’ve seen how things have changed. People who were afraid of getting involved in social activities would go to church and pray. Now at schools, we don’t know if students are being taught about the Bible, or a sinicized version of it. They’re going after religious communities. They’re also going after internet freedom. They’re trying to control what websites and information people can access. These are things that they do. We have to pay attention to what’s happening in Hong Kong other than just the National Security Law and the most known people that are being imprisoned. There are a lot of people that are still in Hong Kong, who are also freedom lovers, that are still persisting in a limited space. So, there are a lot of things that we can do to help sustain those spaces for freedom, like internet freedom, religious freedom, press freedom. It’s really dependent on our pressure and our attention.

What I want to tell people about Hong Kong is that Hong Kong’s case is actually very different from the case of mainland China and Taiwan. A lot of people would expect that Hong Kong is a lost cause. It’s now a part of China. It’s under the control of the CCP. But actually, since Hong Kong is still trying to be an international financial centre, the pressure from the business and the international community continues to be very important. And that’s one of the ways that we can put pressure to control and monitor what the Hong Kong government is doing. So, I think that’s one thing. Also, a message I want to send to the international community is that if we stop paying attention to what’s going on in Hong Kong, we risk worsening the situation in Hong Kong and letting it die.

We can talk about the Hong Kong 47, which is a super prevalent case that the world is looking at. But there’s also, as you said, the repression that extends beyond these activists. It’s everyday Hongkongers that are also feeling the effects of it. Just recently, the government issued a court order to the ban protest song “Glory to Hong Kong.” The flag and the slogan are already banned. I don’t think it’s a surprise that it will probably pass because the judicial system is warped. But with regards to the protest song, can you speak further on why it’s so meaningful to Hongkongers?

The song was actually created by a person named Thomas. I don’t think that’s his real name. But it was created during the 2019 movement. I think there are a lot of different slogans and songs that emerged from the movement but this is particularly one song that was crafted similar to a national anthem with the type of melody and the vibe of it. When the song came, everyone was saying it was the real anthem for Hongkongers. And actually, many people took to the streets – they even went to different shopping malls – just to sing the song together. You can find a lot of very moving videos online of people just singing it in shopping malls.

I think the reason why it resonates so much for pro-democracy Hongkongers is that we never had an anthem that represents our city. I’ve always been taught the PRC anthem. I think that’s actually the first song that I learned when I got to elementary school. And it’s not anything that represents our identity. I don’t feel any attachment to it. When “Glory to Hong Kong” came out, it was the one song that resonated, connected all of us. Finally, we all felt how it feels to have our own song, and to have a national anthem that represents us. And it’s very emotional when you sing it.

“You can almost cry when you find an anthem that represents your people.”

You think about how the song used to take over the streets of Hong Kong and now the government is trying to ban it on all sorts of streaming platforms. That’s just sad.

Obviously, Hongkongers are using our ways to voice our opposition to the injunction. Basically, going on all the platforms to listen to the song. The song eventually became the top track in Hong Kong, on Spotify, on Apple Music, on every streaming platform. My speech at the Geneva Summit, because it was titled “Glory to Hong Kong,” took over on the internet as well. Everyone is searching for it. Everyone wants to show their opposition by listening to the song. I think that was very powerful. We don’t have an outlet to speak up for ourselves because of the persecution and whatnot. This basically shows how many people cares about the song and how many people are still fighting even if they’re not coming out on the streets.

It seems the Hong Kong democracy movement has evolved because of the level of repression. Due to the high number of imprisonments, especially of the pro-democracy activists and elected officials, it’s taken a different tone. Just a couple of weeks ago, there was the suppressed vigil for the Tiananmen Square Massacre on June 4th. 

For three decades, Hong Kong was the only place that you could hold a vigil in China for it. In your speech, you spoke about a memory you had when you were 10 years old and attended one; how much of an impact it had on you in becoming an activist. 

In the past couple of years, there wasn’t a huge vigil because of Covid restrictions. This year would have been the year that it would have happened again. But instead, the opposite occurred. The government took over Victoria park where the vigil is normally held and had a pro-Beijing carnival. People were arrested and barred from doing anything with regards to commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre. What is the significance of what happened this year? Were you surprised that the government had gone to such great lengths to suppress the vigil?

I think if you asked me when I was 10, I would be surprised. But we’ve all seen how it was leading up to the day. I think what’s surprising is you can’t even voice your commemoration on your own even when it’s not an assembly. People were just holding candles and flowers and they would get stopped, get searched, and eventually get detained. That to me is quite surprising. And if you imagine what’s going to happen in the future, I would guess that even lighting a candle in your home, or buying flowers on that day would probably be banned.

Why is it so significant? The vigil itself is basically a representation of Hong Kong. Even though it was under China’s rule, people continued to enjoy freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. They continue to pursue democracy. The government allowed spaces for those kinds of voices. And then, after the imposition of the National Security Law, all of these were eliminated. So it’s also a reflection of how the opposition voices were eliminated from society.

There was a time in our pro-democracy movement that people thought that the vigil was a little too mild.  We are only calling for democracy in China when we should only be fighting for democracy in Hong Kong. And so, some people boycotted the vigil at one point. But then, a lot of these people, when we realized the vigil was banned, were shocked and angered. Many of us have since come back and commemorate the massacre because it’s actually very significant and it’s a representation of Hong Kong’s democracy and how it all fell apart in just one year.

The vigil is part of Hong Kong’s contemporary history as well. It’s also a sign of solidarity with the people in mainland China and the repression they’re enduring. We saw the White Paper Protests at the end of 2022, which showed how the people of Hong Kong stand in solidarity with the other peoples suffering under CPP oppression such as Han Chinese, and Uyghurs.

The 2020 movement also opened our eyes to see that this is not a problem in Hong Kong only. This is a problem with the CCP. It’s a problem that’s happening to the Uyghurs, Tibetans, Chinese citizens, and Taiwanese. It’s impossible for us to tackle this by just focusing on Hong Kong. It’s impossible. And the only way that we can tackle this is to break down the CCP. It’s to have this common enemy, which is the authoritarian regime that’s controlling all these communities and cities. In 2020, that’s when we started to realize that point. 

Source: Reuters

Despite the repression on June 4th, there were some Hongkongers who still went out and commemorated. They faced the consequences for it and were arrested. While it’s upsetting to see this happen, their actions are a testament to the persistence of the democracy movement. It’s still there in Hong Kong even though it’s evolved over the past couple of years. What do you think will happen to Hong Kong? Do you think Hong Kong will ever be a free democratic society?

I think it’s really hard to answer that question. Even in my parent’s generation when the Berlin Wall came down, no one ever expected that it would happen. So, we have to keep our hope and understand that all we do matters. It’s the little steps to get toward that goal. I don’t know if I will be alive to witness the day when the CCP will collapse. But I think what we are doing right now is raising attention and making sure everyone is aware how extensive and how blatant the CCP is as a threat to human rights, world order, and to our collective human dignity in general.

I think a lot of us have different roles in the diaspora and also on the ground in Hong Kong. But even though we are somewhat disconnected because of the lack of media existent in Hong Kong and the number of people moving out of the city, as you said, there are a lot of people who continue to persist and are fighting for freedom in Hong Kong even though they are not as vocal as they were during the 2019 movement. Many of them continue to be pro-democracy and freedom loving people. They stay in Hong Kong because they love Hong Kong. If we are not doing anything to help them improve the situation in Hong Kong, or if we’re not doing anything to monitor and watch the government, then we’re abandoning them. We are letting the situation in Hong Kong continue to worsen.

As I said earlier, I want to make sure Hong Kong’s plight is still on everyone’s radar. I don’t want people to think that Hong Kong is a lost cause and that it’s basically just a city under China’s rule. I think there are a lot of things that we can do to help sustain that environment and to improve the situation by putting more international pressure and by watching closely what’s happening in Hong Kong. For example, one of the working groups of the UN, I think the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, recently issued a statement about the situation of Chow Hang-tung, one of the people who went on a hunger strike to commemorate June 4th, who was then put in arbitrary detention. The Hong Kong government or the Chinese government have to face this. They need to realize they’re being monitored. They can’t just move someone to a prison without anyone caring. I think that’s very important. It also sends a really good signal to people on the ground that the international community hasn’t abandoned them.

“My main message is that while I don’t know when Hong Kong will be free, I know for sure that if we do not pay attention to it, there’s no way Hong Kong will be free in any of our lifetimes.”

In exile, you are working to raise the plight of Hongkongers at the international arena. What are your top priorities right now? What are the main projects you are working on?

I do believe that we can control or somehow manipulate what the government is doing by putting more pressure from the international community. They should face economic or political consequences for their crackdown, for violating human rights. Sanctions and different types of mechanisms that can hold them accountable are very important.

I’m also working on a report that can reflect the situation in Hong Kong. For example, the religious freedom aspect. I think many people overlook how the religious community is under oppression at this point in Hong Kong. There are obviously many things that we can do to continue shedding light on the plight of Hongkongers.

I’m also running my organization We The Hongkongers, which is to promote the culture and identity of Hongkongers and also to make sure people know that our community exists. Maybe it’s time to broaden our vocabulary with words like Hongkonger to understand the value and meaning they capture. 

As a final question, what message do you have for Hongkongers who still are living in the city right now?

I would say it’s been a hard time for both people on the ground and for those left in Hong Kong to witness the deterioration of our democratic system. I am not in the position to tell the people in Hong Kong what they should do. But I think existing is part of resisting. As long as we make sure our history continues to be passed to our next generations, and we remember our identity as Hongkongers, our history will not be changed, even if it’s changed in our textbooks. The spirits of Hongkongers will continue to stream through generations. I hope that our ambition for a truly free and democratic Hong Kong will also flow through generations to come because we are Hongkongers and we love our home.