The future of activism in Hong Kong — Q&A with Jeffrey Ngo

Politics & Current Affairs

As a new leader takes control of Hong Kong, the activist and historian Jeffrey Ngo takes stock of the recent crackdowns on civil society, Hong Kong’s history of peaceful protest, and shares his thoughts on why the Tibetan exile movement may be a model for Hong Kongers’ future.

Illustration by George Wong.

Hong Kong is about to have a new chief executive: the former cop John Lee (李家超 Lǐ Jiāchāo). Three days after his appointment on May 8, Hong Kong’s police arrested four people on national security charges, including one of the most senior Catholic clerics in Asia, a pop star, and a former barrister.

What is in store for Hong Kong? Can the territory’s boisterous protest movement survive?

To answer these and other questions, I called up Jeffrey Ngo (敖卓軒 Áo Zhuōxuān). Jeffrey is a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist based in Washington, D.C., where he is currently a Ph.D. candidate in history at Georgetown University.

We spoke by video call on May 19. This is an abridged, edited transcript of our conversation.

—Jeremy Goldkorn

Last week, there were four trustees of the now-disbanded 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund which helped pay legal and medical fees for protestors in Hong Kong — Cardinal Joseph Zen (陈日君 Chén Rìjūn), Margaret Ng (吴霭义 Wú ǎiyí), Denise Ho (何韵诗 Hé Yùnshī), and Hui Po-Keung (许宝强 Xǔ Bǎoqiáng) — who were arrested by national security police.

Should we read this as just another blow by Beijing or is the timing significant?

I’m sure national-security agents have files on every public figure in the pro-democracy movement, so they can always arrest, detain, and charge people anytime they want.

What happened last week was not some breakthrough in terms of the case itself. In fact, Professor Hui and Cardinal Zen have maintained quite a low profile since the enactment of the national security law (NSL). So have Margaret Ng and Denise Ho, in fact. The only reason they seem to have been in the news not long ago is that they were separately arrested late last year in connection to Stand News, the media outlet that was forced to shut down. So it’s not that any of these figures have done anything per se. The timing depends on Beijing.

What Beijing wants to tell Hong Kongers is: “We are coming after you.” And what happened before those arrests, obviously, was that the weekend before that, John Lee was selected as the next chief executive. So I very much interpret this as a way to signal that — just so everyone is clear — despite there being an impending change in leadership in the Hong Kong government, that the overall direction of Beijing’s policy in Hong Kong remains unchanged: To crack down on people who have participated in any form in the 2019 movement.

And I should also note: The 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund didn’t try to overthrow the government. They didn’t even get close to the debates about sovereignty or anything. Their main objective was to ensure that anyone who had been arrested in connection to the protest could afford legal representation, a basic human right. Hong Kong’s judicial independence and the rule of law obviously are under threat right now. But the idea that anyone should be given a free trial is deeply ingrained in Hong Kong’s tradition, and that was why the fund was established in the first place.

So the fact that folks who organized this fund — which, by the way, had already ceased to function last year — are getting arrested shows just how far Beijing is willing to go to destroy everything that used to make Hong Kong unique.

What do you make of the selection of John Lee? How do you read it and how do you think other people in Hong Kong are seeing it?

It’s certainly a deviation from how things have always been since the 1997 handover. There used to be three types of political figures who could gain power within the Hong Kong SAR structure. The first was someone like Tung Chee-Hwa (董建华 Dǒng Jiànhuá): He ran a shipping company and had strong ties with fellow tycoons in Hong Kong who facilitated China’s integration with the global capitalist order. The second type was someone like Donald Tsang (曾荫权 Zéng Yīnquán): He entered the civil service during the British colonial period, rose through the ranks, and declared his allegiance to the Chinese government after 1997; he brought with him expertise in how the bureaucracy was run.

The third type was someone like Leung Chun-Ying (梁振英 Liáng Zhènyīng): He was an ideologue, a party insider determined to take Hong Kong in a more overtly pro-CCP direction by reforming education and other pillars of society. John Lee comes from none of these backgrounds. He isn’t close to the business community, isn’t a career civil servant, and definitely isn’t interested in ideological debates. He’s a cop who retired from the police force early to run the overarching Security Bureau. So, to install someone like John Lee as the next leader of Hong Kong signals that Beijing’s focus now is no longer on placating the local elite or trying to run the city professionally.

Nor is it about — I would argue — ideology any longer. I think it’s a pragmatic matter: How do you mobilize the security apparatus to fully control Hong Kong? That apparatus includes everyone from cops and customs to correctional officers and even the flying service; now there are also the new national security agents who are put in place by the Chinese government.

How do you coordinate these forces so they can ensure that civil society in Hong Kong is gone for good? That’s what Beijing is tasking John Lee to deal with. It’s very much about making sure there will be no more protests, no more uprisings in the future.

There’s an argument that’s quite common among people who are more supportive of the Chinese government that somehow the protests went too far.

What’s your take on that looking back over the years? Do you think something could have been done differently that may have led to a different outcome? Or was this really just an inevitable clash?

I have two responses: One is historical and the other is a parallel comparison. I’m not a historical determinist, but I do think that the protests or the clash was a result of structural forces. It was the way that “One Country, Two Systems” was set up that made it very difficult to imagine an alternative, especially if Beijing was determined to tighten control, because Hong Kongers have no recourse to hold Beijing accountable for its broken promises. Power is too unequal between the two sides. So I do think there is some victim-blaming in that criticism.

It’s also worth remembering that Hong Kong has a long tradition of massive, nonviolent peaceful protests dating back to the 1980s. The first million-strong protest was actually on May 28, in 1989, days before the Tiananmen Square Massacre, when Hong Kongers en masse showed up in the streets of Hong Kong to support students in Beijing. If you looked at what people were saying at the time, most Hong Kongers didn’t reject being identified as Chinese. It was precisely because Hong Kongers identified as Chinese, and knowing that the 1997 handover was impending, that Hong Kongers wanted to see a democratic China, before the handover. So the rights that were enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 would be realized after that handover. Fast forward to 2003, which was my first-ever protest, half a million people showed up, all peaceful and it worked: The Hong Kong government retracted its attempts to legislate Article 23.

In 2008 — and I like to talk about 2008 a lot in light of the recent Winter Olympics and comparing how the sentiment has changed in Hong Kong between 2008 and 2022 — even a term like “self-determination” didn’t exist in the Hong Kong political vocabulary. If you look at the polls at the time, close to 90% of Hong Kongers opposed Taiwanese independence. Even the Taiwanese themselves elected Ma Ying-Jeou (马英九 Mǎ Yīngjiǔ) from the more pro-unification KMT party. Hong Kongers have always wanted universal suffrage, yes. But we have never asked for anything more than what had already been promised in the 1984 Joint Declaration and enshrined in the Basic Law, that is, a gradual move toward universal suffrage.

Initially, we thought that it would happen in 2007, ten years after the handover. That got pushed back by five years, to 2012, and then again it got pushed to 2017. It was only when Beijing said there was not going to be true universal suffrage in 2017 — because the proposal was that Hong Kongers could only vote among a pool of candidates already pre-approved by Beijing, which is not how democracy works — that the Umbrella Movement happened. And even the Umbrella Movement was very peaceful.

The more pro-independence rhetoric and the escalation of protest tactics only happened beginning in 2015. But that was after a decades-long record of very moderate objectives and very moderate tactics. So it is tragic, but at every turn, when Hong Kongers were willing to make our voices heard, and willing to do what we could to make sure that the Chinese government would live up to its promises, the Chinese government pushed back and said no, even to the most basic things.

So that’s what I would say, in terms of the longer historical trajectory. The shorter comparison is Macau, which is the only other territory under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework. No one can reasonably claim that there were anything more than very small, very peaceful protests in Macau after 1999. And the opposition in Macau never came close to securing even a third, let alone a majority, in their even less democratic Legislative Council because of the way that’s set up. Usually, they had somewhere between just four to six pro-democracy lawmakers, which is very small. And look at what happened to them.

They got disqualified as well, just like how Hong Kong’s entire opposition was wiped out. Pro-democracy voices in Macau face their own version of the National Security legislation.

That threat of separatism was always imagined. Beijing just uses it as a pretext. And so, it’s really about what Beijing wants to do to clamp down on people expressing their desire for democratic change, and it’s not really about protesters going too far.

What does anyone who is concerned about civil society in Hong Kong do now? Clearly it’s impossible to run any kind of activist organization. It’s almost impossible to run any kind of media organization that reports critically on Hong Kong or China. What are your colleagues and friends in Hong Kong doing now?

There are three scenarios. Number one — the most unfortunate one — is that people are in jail. In fact, just this month, we’ve reached the grim milestone of 1,000 political prisoners since 2019 in Hong Kong. These include both the most high-profile organizers as well as anonymous frontline protesters, who’ve been arrested and charged and found guilty of “crimes” in relation to the movement.

Number two is that people self-censor. There are those who want to stay in Hong Kong, but they know that if they do anything, they will potentially get arrested. And if it’s an NSL charge, we know the maximum penalty is life imprisonment. So people are still trying to do things quietly, but they’re not speaking out, including not talking to you because speaking with foreign media is one way to run afoul of the NSL.

Number three is that people leave Hong Kong and go into exile. And the third scenario is the only way, as I see it, that folks can continue to fight for Hong Kong in the foreseeable future. Nothing can happen on the ground anytime soon. Thankfully, Hong Kongers have long taken our cause to the world. International advocacy is what I’ve been doing for eight years.

In the past, the movement in Hong Kong itself took center stage. Those of us involved in international advocacy played a supporting role to ensure that voices in Hong Kong would be amplified all around the globe. That has fundamentally changed since the summer of 2020. We are now rebuilding Hong Kong’s civil society from the ground up overseas, including here in Washington. There was an inaugural Hong Kong Fair — complete with food stalls and exhibitions — in Vancouver. Nathan Law (罗冠聪 Luó Guāncōng) and others with the Hong Kong Umbrella Community in London have also been working on a nationwide film festival over the past couple of months in the UK.

We are seeing large numbers of Hong Kongers migrating to English-speaking countries, including the U.S., Canada, the UK, and Australia. Building a diaspora movement is a completely different line of work from organizing protests against the government on the streets of Hong Kong. And when I see the direction that the movement is heading toward, I think about just how much there is for us to learn from the Tibetan diaspora; they’ve been doing this since 1959. What does it mean to not just hold onto your identity, but doing so entirely from outside of your homeland? I look at my friends who are third-generation Tibetans-in-exile, and I see that’s how we will be in a few decades.

So how do we ensure that our diaspora will continue to grow? Hong Kongers have always been a very cosmopolitan people. But precisely because we used to take the freedom of travel so much for granted, we didn’t imagine a world in which we couldn’t just go in and out of Hong Kong easily. We were — and still are — citizens of the world. It’s one thing to think of ourselves as very mobile; it’s another thing to be shut out of our city entirely. So it’s a completely opposite mindset. How do we continue to do what’s right for Hong Kong from the outside? It’s going to take time to strategize. But I think that’s where we are all headed next.

One difference between the mainland and Hong Kong is that people my age may remember the odd case of a civil society movement against the government, such as 1989, but it’s much fresher in the minds of average Hong Kongers in terms of the freedoms that they’ve lost.

There are school children in Hong Kong who just a few years ago participated in demonstrations. Do you think this recency of experience matters?

If anything, I think the present moment and the next few years are crucial. Tibet in 1959, China in 1989, and Hong Kong in 2019 and 2020: These were “starting points” for a people going into exile.

I think we have to learn from the success of the Tibetan diasporic community. Here in the U.S., for instance, they have Sunday schools to teach children their language so they are able to retain their culture. Every year, they all celebrate Losar, the Tibetan New Year.

Tibetans my age who were born and raised here have never even seen Tibet with their own eyes. Neither have their parents. But the thought of one day going back to their homeland is deeply ingrained in their consciousness. There’s just so much for Hong Kongers to learn from them. And it requires us to start building that infrastructure abroad if we are to replicate their success. It’s far more cultural than political if our goal is to preserve a Hong Kong identity.

I also think we need to caution ourselves from the failures of the Chinese diasporic community. After the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, the U.S. government issued green cards to tens of thousands of Chinese students here so a lot of them became permanent residents or citizens. Some imprisoned key leaders of the protests were subsequently expelled from China through obtaining medical parole or completing their sentences. But there has since been no sustained, large-scale movement abroad for a free, democratic China.

When we talk about Chinese-Americans, we refer to a group of immigrants whose forebears first came to this country from the Qing Empire amid the California Gold Rush of the 1840s. The post-1989 generation simply assimilated into this existing group. The Chinese diaspora isn’t organized around the objective of political change back in China. That’s not how I envision Hong Kongers to be. I want future Hong Kong-Americans to be defined by our continued fight for a free Hong Kong, the same way Tibetan-Americans have built their entire identity around the idea that Tibet ought to be free. I think Chinese-Americans squandered the Tiananmen momentum and missed the opportunity back in the 1990s to build something similar.

Hong Kongers have the momentum and opportunity now. And it’s the Tibetan model, not the Chinese model, that we need to adopt moving forward. Only then will Hong Kong, too, one day be free.

How did you become an activist? And how do you understand your role as both a historian and an activist?

The first protest that I ever participated in was when I was in primary school: The one in 2003 with half a million people on the streets against the Hong Kong government’s first attempt to introduce national-security legislation, known as Article 23. I also joined protests against the high-speed rail in 2009 and against patriotic education in 2012 — led by Joshua Wong (黄之锋 Huáng Zhīfēng) and that established him as a student activist.

I showed up at Victoria Park every June 4 to the Tiananmen candlelight vigil. But I became an organizer, rather than a mere participant, only after I left Hong Kong. I was actually studying at NYU, at its D.C. campus for the Fall 2014 semester, when the Umbrella Movement broke out in Hong Kong. I didn’t spend a single day in Hong Kong, but I organized multiple solidarity rallies in both New York and Washington. It really started from there.

Afterward, I befriended my counterparts from Hong Kong, including Joshua himself, Alex Chow (周永康 Zhōu Yǒngkāng), and Nathan Law, who were visiting the U.S. for different reasons.

In the summer of 2016, I went back to Hong Kong to campaign for Nathan in the election that made him the youngest-ever Legislative Council member. I joined his political party, Demosistō in 2017 and remained there until just before it disbanded on the eve of the National Security Law more than three years later. Separately, during the massive anti-extradition protests in 2019, when the Hong Kong Democracy Council was established as a D.C.-based nonprofit for Hong Kong, I became a founding member of the advisory board. I transitioned into its staff team as the Policy and Research Fellow late last year.

In terms of my studies: I initially went to NYU for journalism. I remember following the coverage on Hong Kong in 2014. The news cycle moved on while the movement was still ongoing. That was a moment of realization about the limits of fast-breaking journalism: You focus on one place at a time. Last year, it may have been on Afghanistan. Now it may be on Ukraine. A few months later, it’s going to be on somewhere else. I have a lot of respect for journalists, of course. It just seemed to me that there was no shortage of good journalists who knew Hong Kong.

But there was really a shortage of Hong Kong historians to put it all into context.

So 2014 was the turning point for me. I decided to switch my academic focus, wrote my senior honors thesis, and stayed at NYU for another year to do an interdisciplinary master’s with a focus on global histories. Then I spent a year in Toronto as a visiting scholar and started my Ph.D. program in Fall 2018 at Georgetown to study the Vietnamese boat people refugees. At the time, I wanted to propose a dissertation topic on an aspect of Hong Kong history that was understudied, with a transnational angle and an American angle. The Vietnam War and its legacies obviously fit that.

In the span between that and when I passed my comprehensive exams last May, Hong Kong had completely changed. The city used to be a destination for refugees, whether they be coming from Vietnam, mainland China, or elsewhere. Now, in the age of the national security law, Hong Kong is an origin of refugees, because people are just fleeing in increasingly large numbers.

Even by boat.

Even by boat, right. That’s the ultimate irony. I set out researching a historical topic that was relatively removed from my activism work, although it was still about Hong Kong. Yet the circumstances made those two things connect by the time I started writing my dissertation. They’re very much entwined — thematically, intellectually, and politically.