Human rights law expert Sharon Hom has told HKFP that “strategic positivity” is needed to confront Beijing on the world stage, and activists should not give up on imperfect platforms such the UN.

In an exclusive interview live-streamed on Facebook, the executive director of Human Rights in China said that the global Covid-19 pandemic had shifted the landscape when it came to China’s place on the world stage.

She pointed to several countries in the World Health Organization which have demanded an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, and said it implied a change in dynamic concerning China’s global leadership ambitions.

“I think there are governments now within the UN – and also outside of the system – who are beginning to take decisions which frankly they were not courageous enough or [had] the political will enough [to do] in the past,” said Hom.

Hom added that Covid-19 has illuminated the consequences of China disrespecting freedom of expression and access to information: “The consequences of trampling on those rights when there is not information to deal with this pandemic – we are seeing the deadly consequences of censorship, information control and a non-transparent governance system.”

Li Wenliang was one of the eight Chinese doctors who were reprimanded by the authorities for “rumour-mongering” after trying to raise the alarm about the virus in December. He died after contracting the disease and was posthumously deemed a “whistleblower.”

‘Recognise the cracks’

Hom gained recognition among Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters following her testimony at a US congressional hearing last September. Her NGO has also made submissions to the UN over Hong Kong’s adherence to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

She said on Tuesday that, despite the United Nations’ state-centrism, it is also a system where civil society and non-governmental bodies continue to be supported: “Recognise the openings – if we don’t recognise the cracks, we won’t be able to use them.”

“The fact that I don’t believe we should just give up on imperfect tools, on imperfect forums, on imperfect tribunals, on imperfect procedures does not mean I am optimistic,” she said. “It means that we need to use everything that exists, recognise their limits and imperfections.”

Sharon Hom speaking before the CECC on September 17. File photo: screenshot.

She said there could be a hook for media and civil society to pursue questions over Beijing’s human rights record: “They did not respect their obligations and treaty obligations to Hong Kong. Why would we believe that any representations and promises they make in their candidacy are going to be respected?”

‘Bottom-up’

The New York law professor said she believed civil participants can exert pressure on different governments – for instance, the United Kingdom is a signatory of the Sino-British Joint Declaration which outlined “One Country, Two Systems” and the Handover of Hong Kong.

She said London should be expected to speak up for Hong Kong: “We need the UK government to start exercising its role and its function as a joint declaration [signatory,]” she said, in addition to individual parliamentarians and former governors who have been vocal.

She nonetheless added that it is always the people who bring about change – such as in the case of the Hong Kong democracy movement – rather than governments initiating reforms: “The top looks like it’s powerful, looks like it’s controlling everything – but, at the end of the day, it’s bottom-up that’s going to effectuate changes as we saw in Hong Kong… it’s bottom-up.”

Photo: May James/HKFP.

She said there are “cracks” in seemingly powerful establishments which are particularly noticeable at times of global crisis. Hom suggested that pro-democracy activists should begin to start thinking “bottom-up” and strategically make use of them.

“We should start some scenario thinking so that – in [the] post-Covid-19 era – we should reject every single call to return to normal. We will not return to normal because the normal state of the world is what brought us to these major… crises that we are in.”


Additional reporting: Tom Grundy.

Correction 21:20: Owing to a misquote, a previous version of this article wrongly stated that China was currently bidding to become a permanent member of the Human Rights Council.

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Rachel Wong

Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.