By Daniel C. Tsang
As a fugitive on the run from Hong Kong authorities, activist Ray Wong Toi-yeung was surprisingly direct about where to meet. “Come to an address on Friedrichstrasse at 4pm,” he said. There were no coded messages, no mail drops, no further instructions left at the location.
It was an apt place to meet, just half a mile from the German Bundestag, where weeks earlier he had addressed parliamentarians on China’s human rights record, 30 years after the Tiananmen massacre.
The former independence activist fled the city, alongside fellow activist Alan Li after the 2016 Mong Kok unrest. The duo, former leading members of the pro-independence group Hong Kong Indigenous, was set to stand trial on rioting charges in November 2017 but gained refugee status in Germany around a year after they fled the city.
At the appointed time that Tuesday, Wong’s tall, lanky figure suddenly emerged from a crowded hotel lobby.
He explained he felt relatively safe in Germany. And felt that Hongkongers’ struggles against Chinese encroachment were supported by politicians across the spectrum, from the governing CDU to the Greens.
Despite the violence inflicted on his fellow Hongkongers by a triad-associated mob in Yuen Long just days before, Wong said he was optimistic about the long-term prospects for the city. He expected that Hong Kong’s anti-extradition protesters would not be intimidated, and would be more emboldened to resist China.
He preferred to focus instead on the recent mass mobilisations, which showed a political awareness expanding to other sectors of society, beyond the small group of young rebels he once helped lead in the localist party Hong Kong Indigenous. The anti-extradition legislation protests have now reached into most Hong Kong districts, politicising a whole new group, and giving him hope for the future.
But Wong took issue with the complaint that the protests were turning violent. Instead, it was the police use of violence against the peaceful marchers that was significant. Would he term what the police did a “police riot” then? Yes, instead of protecting the citizenry, as was their responsibility, they did the opposite.
“The response from the police was so unnecessary,” he said, in reference to the firing of grenades and rubber bullets to clear protesters who had hurled ink at China’s Liaison Office on July 22. Wong added that the police should have tried to de-escalate the situation instead of using increased violence which threatened the safety and even lives of protesters.
Since leaving Hong Kong, he has occasionally thought of returning: “I thought that if the Public Order Ordinance was rescinded, then I would have the opportunity to return,” he explained. The colonial-era law was used to prosecute Wong for “rioting” and carries jail terms of up to a decade. He also pointed out that even the United Nations had criticised the law as unfair.
But the situation in Hong Kong has since become more serious. Not only have authorities continued to use the ordinance to prosecute protesters but, as Wong said, “the Hong Kong and central government are increasingly moving to restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms,” thus rendering the likelihood of him returning to the city as a free man increasingly remote.
Wong added that Carrie Lam resigning as Chief Executive is not the most important goal to him since her replacement would be chosen by Beijing.
“The more important goal is to get Beijing to respect One Country, Two Systems, the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration. What will resolve the current crisis is if Beijing observes the Basic Law and gives Hong Kong real universal suffrage.”
When asked why he delayed publicising his refugee status – which is technically what he applied for, not political asylum – in May 2018, he said he was waiting for a better opportunity to make it public because of potential consequences including detention by Chinese authorities.
That opportunity came with the urgent need to speak out against the extradition bill being rushed through the city’s legislature in May. He said he thought that going public would enable him to “stand up and raise awareness” of the proposed amendments.
Another factor was his fellow localist activist Edward Leung Tin-kei’s second trial, in which Leung was acquitted on a rioting charge. Though Wong said he didn’t know if going public would have affected the case directly or indirectly.
On future prospects for resisting China in Hong Kong he says: “As I look at current developments in Hong Kong, I am more and more hopeful, since increasingly the protesters identify as Hongkongers, and not Chinese. Hong Kong authorities or the central governments will find it difficult to influence their values. Hongkongers’ identity is based on our history and it’s not just the youth who so identify.”
“As for the youth, their protests have reached a global standard, given media coverage around the world, with many impressed with how a leaderless movement could act so quickly and decisively.”
“Authoritarian governments are bound to be scared by the threats posed by leaderless movements. They cannot arrest the leaders to stop a movement – this was what they did before. Actually, there are no leaders so who can they arrest?”
“They can only make appeals and see if the demonstrators accept,” Wong suggested.
When asked if a city-wide curfew would likely be imposed, Wong said that would adversely affect Hong Kong’s economy. Imposing a curfew would mean Hong Kong has reached a level where its stability cannot be controlled by the Hong Kong government, thus affecting the economy adversely: “Investor faith will be shattered,” he said.
“I believe it would be a very stupid move on the part of the Hong Kong government to impose a curfew. But we can see the government has already done many stupid things.”
“I can understand why the central government is letting the triads do the work for them, thus diverting the attention of the protestors to the thugs. This would give the government and police more breathing space… the thugs were so stupid to not only beat up protesters, but do so in public.”
Wong added the demonstrations have reached a critical stage but hope that protesters will remain steadfast and committed to their cause.
He said he foresees only two possible outcomes as the situation is fast spiralling out of control: the central government yields, allowing Lam to resign and offer Hongkongers the right to vote. However, this is unlikely. The other outcome would be for the People’s Liberation Army to enter the city.
“I believe the Chinese Communist Party would not wish for that to happen… because that would mean the end of One Country, Two Systems,” he said. “The Chinese government still needs Hong Kong.”
He said he considered fleeing Hong Kong in 2017 after Leung decided to stay. His own departure was facilitated by a local court granting him the return of his passport to attend a previously scheduled meeting in Germany. It was only after he arrived in Germany that he realised he could apply for refugee status to stay there.
Many observers have lamented that exiled Chinese dissidents are usually ignored by China. But Wong said he did not feel himself an ineffectual dissident abroad. Unlike in China, social media and the internet flow freely throughout Hong Kong. The city was not China, at least not yet, so he can participate in Hong Kong activism from abroad.
Daniel C. Tsang is an Honorary Research Fellow in Social Science at HKU and Distinguished Librarian Emeritus at University of California, Irvine. He blogs occasionally at Subversities.blogspot.com. He was born in Hong Kong.