By Daniel C. Tsang
Ray Wong, who skipped bail and fled to Europe, told me on 15 May last year: “Hey Dan, Germany has approved my application [for asylum]!” I could sense his relief. But he didn’t want to go public yet, and he didn’t for another year.
Flashback to Hong Kong, Wong was overly worried about his imminent escape the city and skipping bail, but he did not show it, even when we met several times again. He seemed more worried about spending a long time in prison.
We hung out in the month before he split for potential asylum (since granted) in Germany, after we met at a screening of Evans Chan’s ‘Raise the Umbrellas’ at the Hong Kong Institute of Contemporary Culture Lee Shau Kee School of Creativity, in Kowloon Tsai.
There, I had been amazed to see him on a post-screening panel seated amicably with Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting, and others who would later serve as defendants in the Occupy Nine criminal case.
Wong’s reflections on the past and potential future while participating in the post-screening panel were included in Evans Chan’s follow-up film “We Have Boots!”. Wong, citing Albert Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, alluded to the mythical Greek king’s punishment of perpetually pushing a boulder up a hill despite the futility of the effort.
Looking over at Tai and lawmaker Shiu Ka-chun, also on the panel, Wong proclaims, “You two are like Sisyphus!” It’s an iconic scene in the film, given that both Tai and Shiu are currently incarcerated, convicted of public nuisance for what emerged from the Occupy Central protests, while Wong would manage to escape to Germany. Significantly, in Camus’s interpretation, the lesson of Sisyphus is a revolt.
In a sign demonstrating how Wong, the radical, and other more mainstream pan-democrats, were already reconciling their divergent political views, Shiu, smiling, affectionately wrapped a hand around Wong’s shoulder.
Shiu is currently serving eight months in prison. Tai is currently serving 18 months behind bars.
For someone under scrutiny by the authorities, Wong was remarkably open about meeting. In mid-October, 2017, we ended up having lunch at Simply Life Bakery in New Town Plaza in Shatin and then took the MTR to his Hong Kong Indigenous Headquarters near CUHK.
In an hour-long interview in Cantonese, interrupted by a phone call, he talked about how he began his “career” (as I described it) in social activism. The audio link is on my blog.
Given his prominent role against parallel traders crossing the border from mainland China, I had to ask if he was anti-immigrant. He denied he was a “nativist,” pointing out he wasn’t against all mainlanders coming to Hong Kong. His fellow activist, Edward Leung Tin-kei, he pointed out, was from the mainland but had become a Hongkonger.
Thus, the litmus test was whether the new immigrant identified with Hong Kong values. He even advocated the Hong Kong government institute a Hong Kong citizenship test before granting immigrants a right to stay permanently.
The budding scholar in this then-independence advocate was reading philosophy in translation. In response to my request about any social movement artefacts I could archive, he gave me a Hong Kong Indigenous bag that made clear that Hong Kong Indigenous was hardly a typical fringe party that could be easily dismissed.
In fact, weeks after the 2016 Mongkok unrest, its spokesman Edward Leung garnered an impressive 66,500-plus votes in a Legislative Council by-election, though not winning. Leung’s later attempt to run again for LegCo was vetoed by the Hong Kong authorities, who did not believe he had given up on advocating Hong Kong independence.
The values that the party expressed resonated across Hong Kong, especially among the young. An HKU Public Opinion Poll in December 2017 would show only 3 tenths of one per cent of those interviewed under 30 would call themselves “Chinese.”
From his safe refuge in Germany Wong told the foreign media how he would devote his energy to fighting for human rights in Hong Kong instead, deciding it would be futile to continue advocating independence for Hong Kong. “Impractical” he might have added, for that was a term he used in our earlier interview, to discuss pan-democrats’ appeals to the United Nations with China on the Security Council.
To me, his change of focus is not that surprising for, during the political discussions in which we engaged during the month before he fled, I had posited that being in exile in the past made dissidents from China irrelevant (to the government). He, himself, in foreign media interviews from Germany, would concede that he believed that’s why he was allowed to keep his Hong Kong passport so he could leave. China would prefer he go away, he suggested.
But the dissident flame within him still burns bright. If he is no longer advocating Hong Kong independence, he can still influence Hong Kongers thirsting for an alternative vision of the future, even from abroad.
Hong Kongers are more open to “foreign influence”, or influence even from Wong, a self-described political refugee now in exile abroad, than Chinese on the Mainland are, given the Great Firewall blocking online information entering China and censorship by the Chinese regime of pro-independence activity.
Hong Kong remains in contrast largely open to outside information, although Beijing is cracking down on local media.
Back in October 2017, Wong was committed to having himself and his party educate themselves on Hong Kong history. A canvas bag he gave me had this “to do list for Hongkongers” imprinted on it, above the party logo: “Hong Kong Indigenous: Undefeatable.”
The tasks listed next to check marks on the bag:
- Learn about the history of HK
- Build a sense of identity
- Equip ourselves
- Influence others
- Reclaim our homeland
Significantly, all this was written in English, suggesting an effort to broaden the party by reaching out to English-speaking Hong Kongers.
Wong, in Germany, is recreating himself as a human rights advocate, not a pro-independence one. German human rights activists have previously embraced the fight against human rights abuses in China (last year, Germany welcomed Liu Xia, the widow of the late Nobel prizewinner Liu Xiaobo).
It is especially noteworthy that Wong and fellow Hong Kong dissident Alan Li met with German Bundestag Deputy Frank Schwabe, the leader of the Socialists, Democrats and Greens Group in the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly. Unlike pan-democrats in Hong Kong who have journeyed to lobby politicians in the UK, US and Canada, mostly embracing rightwing and conservative figures, Wong is pioneering a new path for Hong Kong human rights advocates, by siding with the progressive left in Europe.
As Wong persists in pushing the envelope while pursuing the fight to preserve Hong Kong identity, I’m not surprised he is broadening his human rights scope. After all, he has met Uighurs in exile in Europe. And he and Alan Li have addressed the German Parliament about the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre.
Ironically, I met Wong’s comrade Edward Leung at an alternative June 4 forum at the University of Hong Kong (HKU) in 2016 and subsequently interviewed him too before he was sent to prison last year.
In fact, a NOW TV reporter asked me for my reaction at the HKU forum and I said I had hope in the future for both factions – the original activists commemorating June 4, and the current students who wanted to focus instead on Hong Kong issues. Eventually, they will work together to fight the authoritarian regime across the Hong Kong border.
With Leung having left Hong Kong Indigenous and Wong no longer advocating independence, this doesn’t mean that the values the party espoused are dead. Instead, Leung will come out of prison a stronger advocate for Hong Kong identity, while Wong will remain committed to the cause.
Just nine days before he fled, I cooked breakfast for Wong. He still hadn’t received court permission to travel to Europe for a conference, so he was then still planning to stay and face trial. But soon after we met that last time, he fled.
When I interviewed Wong back in October 2017, his biggest worry if he stayed in Hong Kong and was sent to prison, was that society would forget about fighting for Hong Kong’s future when he emerged from prison, even after an expected ten-year sentence. Now Wong does not have to worry about that. From exile, he will keep helping us stay vigilant. He will learn that resistance is fertile, not futile.
Daniel C. Tsang is an Honorary Research Fellow in Social Science at HKU. He blogs at Subversities.blogspot.com. He was born in Hong Kong.
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