Frances Hui, first Hong Kong activist granted political asylum in the US and Director of ‘We the Hong Kongers’ organization, addresses the 15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see below for her remarks.
I want to start with a statement that you may find confusing or even controversial, which is Hong Kong has never been free. First, it was part of the Chinese empire. Then, it belonged to the United Kingdom for 150 years. And even in 1997 when the United Kingdom handed over Hong Kong to China, the people of Hong Kong were not consulted or included in the negotiations. Hong Kong has never been free.
I was born in 1999, just two years after the handover, when Hong Kong became part of China as a “special administrative region.” China promised “one country, two systems,” so that Hong Kong will not change for 50 years, and Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong. To this day, Beijing and Hong Kong authorities have tried to paint a picture, to make the world believe that Hong Kong is a free society. That it is an international financial center protected with the rule of law. But the people of Hong Kong have woken up to these lies and we are fighting for our democracy.
My story starts when I was 10 years old and I saw a documentary on TV about the Tiananmen Square Massacre. I saw soldiers shooting at unarmed citizens and driving tanks into the crowd. I saw students, covered in blood on makeshift stretchers, rows of bodies covered in sheets, and a man curled up on the sidewalk in the fetal position with his skull cracked open. It’s shocking no matter how old you are, but especially as a 10-year-old. So, I went to the annual vigil on June 4th. Hong Kong was the last place in China that could honor the victim. It was my first experience seeing people freely gathered to express themselves. And it left a profound impression on me about freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, both values that define Hong Kong yet cease to exist in mainland China.
In the summer of 2014, when I was 15 years old, the CCP announced a new election scheme to narrow the people’s already-limited rights to elect our Chief Executive. Student leaders like Joshua Wong called on students to walk out of classrooms and take to the street and let their voices be heard. I joined the walkout with thousands of students. We rallied in front of the government building headquarters and eventually occupied Hong Kong’s busiest highway. That day, police launched 87 tear gas canisters toward students and peaceful demonstrators; they chased us, beat us, pushed us back, again and again. But we didn’t give up. We wore helmets and goggles, held umbrellas to shield ourselves from pepper spray. All we could think about was standing our ground against police aggression.
I was beaten with a police baton and I was pepper sprayed in the face. As I was standing in the midst of tear gas smoke, I looked at all the people fighting alongside me for the same democratic values. I saw there was a community built up where strangers looked out for each other and became neighbors in tents. We were all there to defend our home and our freedom because we are Hong Kongers. I am a Hong Konger. And although we never achieved universal suffrage, this movement completely changed my life and the landscape of Hong Kong’s civic society.
In 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed an extradition law that would violate our judicial independence to allow anyone in Hong Kong to be extradited to China and put on trial under Chinese law. Millions of Hong Kongers took to the streets and came up with the five demands: The extradition law to be repealed, justice for peaceful protesters who were detained, attacked, or died from police aggression, and the right to elect our own officials as promised in the Basic Law. Once again the government ignored people’s voice, and increased state violence against protesters. Police started shooting bullets straight into the crowds, they took siege of a university campus, blocking thousands of young protesters from food and medical assistance unless they surrendered. Throughout the movement, 11 people had died from committing suicide, dozens of others disappeared, and over ten thousand people were arrested. Our city was deeply wounded. We were left together, glued together, by pain, anger, and tragedy.
And as the final insult to the people of Hong Kong, China imposed the National Security Law in 2020 to criminalize any individual under secession, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with foreign forces, facing up to life sentencing in Hong Kong or mainland China. Immediately I was warned that I was on the government’s shortlist of people who’d be arrested. I was only 21 years old but I had to make this life-altering decision in 48 hours. I was torn just from thinking, should I stay in Hong Kong or leave? Would I really get life in prison? In solitary confinement? Or would it be better for me to leave Hong Kong and be a voice for my friends in prison?
Late at night, I decided to get on a plane and I still remember, as the plane took off I was looking out at the lights of Hong Kong through the window thinking, “This might be the last time I’ll see this beautiful city – My home.”
Within weeks, they’d imprisoned 47 of the most inspiring leaders from the movement and now they are facing the possibility of life behind bars. Media outlets were forced to shut down and journalists like Jimmy Lai was put in jail. So many Hong Kongers were forced to flee the city they call home.
In 2021, I secured asylum in the United States. Meanwhile, there are thousands of political prisoners in Hong Kong, with the youngest only 13 years old. The words “political prisoners” and “political asylee” are two labels that I never imagined would apply to Hong Kong people. But I am afraid this is the reality of Hong Kong today, a reality that the Chinese government and the Hong Kong government both try to cover up.
And even when I am in the US where I’m supposed to be safe, me and my friends have been bullied, intimidated, threatened by the CCP. The same has happened to Hong Kongers, Uyghurs, Tibetans, Taiwanese, and Chinese dissidents all over the world. We cannot accept the status quo, we must hold China accountable and let Hong Kong be Hong Kong. CCP’s authoritarianism is one of the biggest threats to world order and democracy, working next to other bad actors like Russia, Iran, and Burma just to name a few. I don’t want to ask the question about why China is still on the UN’s Human Rights Council because many of us have asked that question in the past too many times now, and it is still what it is. But the least that the International Community can do is to advocate for the release of political prisoners in Hong Kong and alleviates their suffering. It only takes all of you sitting here today – world leaders, journalists, activists, and people of conscience – to say their names. Say Jimmy Lai’s name; say Joshua Wong, Gwyneth Ho, Owen Chow’s names. Raise their public profiles, make them famous, and put pressure on the CCP to release them.
15th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy, U.N. Opening, Tuesday, May 16, 2023