US-backed NGO Freedom House has given its 2020 Freedom Award to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

The NGO held a virtual awards ceremony on Wednesday to honour the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong as well as Sudanese protesters. The ceremony gave an account of Hong Kong’s political development since the 1997 Handover of sovereignty from the UK to China. Large-scale protests including the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the 2019 anti-extradition bill demonstrations were highlighted.

Protest "September 15, 2019" tear gas
Protest scenes from September 15, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

Freedom House President Michael J. Abramowitz wrote in a press release on Wednesday that the freedom watchdog was moved by the courage and dedication of the 2020 honourees in their freedom and democracy work: “Tonight’s event is an opportunity to recognise that these diverse struggles—in Hong Kong and Sudan, as well as in Iran, Belarus, and the United States—are ultimately part of the same global effort,” the press release read.

Freedom House live-tweeted during the prize ceremony. “We look forward to the day we can safely say their names,” it tweeted, as a note of Hong Kong protesters’ anonymity.

Pro-democracy activist Nathan Law who left the city following the enactment of the national security law remarked at the ceremony that Hong Kong was at the forefront of the clash between authoritarianism and democratic values: “[Countries] been using engagement and appeasement strategies to engage with China with the hope that it will open and democratise in the future – but the reality is, it has been going to the opposite way.”

national security law
File photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“[China] gets more and more authoritarian… using its sharp and soft power to penetrate the protection of the democracies, and to infiltrate into these countries to discredit and dismantle democracies.”

He urged the world to give up on wishful thinking and take action to counter China and help people who have been fighting for democracy on the ground: “Freedom for me is about having eternal vigilance towards the injustice into the society and to be able to combat it freely,” Law said.

YouTube video

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

US Senator Marco Rubio also praised Hongkongers’ participation in the movement and said they have been defending democracy and freedom.

“Those who have had a taste of freedom don’t give it up easily. They are facing tremendous obstacles right now… We are inspired by the bravery, the courage and the vision of those who are fighting to defend freedom and democracy,” he said.

Last August, Freedom House released a policy brief on the democratic crisis in Hong Kong following the protests that erupted last June. The report noted allegations of rights violations, police brutality and Chinese interference in Hong Kong affairs. In response, it recommended that the US government pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, impose sanctions on perpetrators of violence, suspend Hong Kong’s special trade status, and prohibit the export of US-made security equipment to the city. Al of the proposed actions materialised in the months that followed.

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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.