Gwyneth Ho: “Maintaining the vitality of Hong Kong society is the most important task.”
Since Hong Kong’s national security law came into effect in July, the Hong Kong government has made a few controversial moves, issuing arrest warrants for Hong Kongers abroad, arresting four students, disqualifying 12 pro-democracy candidates, postponing an election, raiding a pro-democracy newspaper’s newsroom and arresting 10 people under the law. Pro-democracy politician and former journalist Gwyneth Ho said it’s clear that the Hong Kong government is using the law to make a political statement, but she thinks it’s important for Hong Kong people to maintain the vitality of civil society despite the shrinking spaces to voice dissent.
Question: You were disqualified by the Hong Kong government alongside 11 other pro-democracy candidates last month. How do you think about the reasons that the returning officer stated?
Gwyneth Ho: They disqualified me because I’m against the national security law. If you read through the lines, it’s actually not because of that. The way they asked the questions is not whether you are against the national security law, but it was phrased as “by opposing the national security law, do you also oppose the right of the standing committee of the national people’s congress to impose the law on Hong Kong based on the concerns of national security?”
They are basically asking candidates in Hong Kong whether they agree that Beijing should have the right to impose whatever laws on Hong Kong whenever they think they need to. I personally didn’t answer that part and I only answered the part about the national security law. Since the Basic Law has a lot of protection for fundamental freedoms for the citizens of Hong Kong, I personally think that if I am upholding the Basic Law, there is no way that I can agree to the current version of the national security law. That’s why I’m against it.
I do feel it’s impossible for a person to be upholding the Basic Law and not opposing the national security law at the same time. Obviously, the returning officer didn’t consider any of this, and we can see that from the way he or she responded to all the other candidates. We see that no matter what we answer, it didn’t make a difference.
It’s only a necessary proceeding for them to ask the questions, but I personally suspect that they actually have a list of people to disqualify. They come up with the reasons. This is not a legal decision. It is totally arbitrary and political.
Question: The Hong Kong government announced the postponement of the election one day after they disqualified the 12 of you. What are your thoughts on the whole intention behind that move?
Gwyneth Ho: I personally think that the government made a political statement. If they just postponed the election without disqualifying anyone, then they couldn’t make it clear that whoever is against the national security law wouldn’t be able to run. I think they are setting a new red line.
Some may say that only 12 pro-democracy candidates were disqualified, but in the coming year, I would say when the election comes, all the candidates that have not been disqualified would have to make a decision: do they still voice their opposition towards the national security law and do they still announce their plans to boycott the government budget?
The Hong Kong government is sowing seeds for a new wave of division among the pro-democracy candidates. The second reason is that they have to make it clear to both the pro-democracy candidates and Hong Kong society that if they are against the national security law, their fundamental rights will be stripped away.
In our case, it is our right to run for public office and stand in the office. For the four students who were arrested, it is their freedom of speech. The disqualification and the arrest of the students are connected. I think it is to show Hong Kong people how far can the national security law reach. It’s less about strategies or electoral concerns, but it’s more about making a statement.
I think why the government decided to postpone the election is also due to the results of the democratic primary, which was held on July 11 and 12. The results made Beijing realize that there is no way for them to stop a democratic majority from happening unless they cancel or postpone the election.
Right before the primary, we see every day in the news that government officials were threatening people in Hong Kong that if they dared to vote in the pro-democracy camp’s primary, they are violating the national security law. Given these threats, we still see 600,000 people came out to vote. The turnout made Beijing realize that no matter what they do and how many people they disqualified, the people in Hong Kong are very eager to support their democratic candidates.
At that time, they made a decision that unless the election is delayed, there is no way for them to stop a democratic majority inside the legislative council from happening.
Question: You used to work as a reporter at Hong Kong’s Stand News before you decided to run in the pro-democracy camp’s primary. You were also attacked by triad members at Yuen Long last year. How do you think about the growing hostility against journalists in Hong Kong?
Gwyneth Ho: One of the reasons why I gave up my career in journalism and switched to politics is because I see that as the Hong Kong government becomes more and more authoritarian, the room for journalists to exercise their social responsibility becomes smaller and smaller.
At the scene of protests, there is no way for journalists to objectively monitor the use of force by the police, because whenever the police carried out arrests, they would force all journalists to leave the cordoned area. The only thing that journalists can capture is the blood on the ground after the police cleared up everything.
We see a lot of videos of police brutality in the early stage of the movement, but that was only during the early stage as police were intentionally obstructing journalists’ doing their works at the scene. I do feel that the police are very aware of the effect of objective coverage of the protests as well as the role of the media.
However, there is no way for journalists to rectify all of this under the current circumstances. They can argue with the police on the ground but that often results in journalists being pepper sprayed in the face. Whenever we demand the police to reveal the number of arrests, they can decide whether they want to reveal this information to the public or not. They don’t have the legal responsibility to do it, so it is at their mercy to determine whether they have to reveal the important information or not.
While I feel that we need journalists to stay in the profession, we also need someone to try to change the system fundamentally. Otherwise, there is basically no way for us to guarantee the freedom of the press. It’s the same in every profession. We all face the same problem, because the problem is in the system.
Question: It seems like the Hong Kong government has used the national security law to put pressure on basic freedom and civil rights over the last month. With the space to voice opposition continues to shrink, what other viable paths do you think Hong Kong’s civil society has to continue the resistance?
Gwyneth Ho: I think the purpose of the national security law has transformed Hong Kong’s society, making it more similar to China’s civil society. The Hong Kong government has actually complemented the national security law with other documents. In one of them, they enact the right for Hong Kong police to shut down websites or to force people to take down posts on social media.
They have established an unlawful right for them to control speech and conversation online, but they haven’t used it yet. For the case of the four students arrested under the national security law, there was no action involved. It was just a few posts on social media. They are now facing charges that can put them in jail for years.
I think the national security law is enacted to silence the political voices in Hong Kong. Under the current circumstances, the pro-democracy camp is still discussing what our next step would be. One of our baseline principles is we can’t stop voicing our opposition even if there are risks involved.
Now the legislative council election has been postponed, the government claimed that it will happen in 2021, but people in Hong Kong are very skeptical about that. Within one year, the government can do a lot of things. The government can change all the laws and regulations regarding elections. For example, Carrie Lam suggested that the Hong Kong government should be able to set up polling stations in the Chinese mainland, so Hong Kongers dwelling on the mainland can vote.
However, we all know that is a path for election manipulation by the Chinese authorities. The Hong Kong government can also change other regulations during the one-year period to make the elections totally controllable for Beijing.
Additionally, all candidates from the democratic camp may face persecution, either under the national security law or other laws. For example, two fellow candidates are already under rioting charges, so by this time next year, they may already be in jail. For people who don’t have charges on their back yet, they may face persecution because they have to disappear from the scene.
I think the upcoming year will be very bloody. Even if there is still an election one year from now, it would not be a democratic, free and fair election. That’s for sure. Given the situation in Hong Kong now, I think the utmost important task now is to maintain the vitality of civil society in Hong Kong.
My tentative plan is to join some civil society organizations and keep advocating and voicing my political views. It’s not that I have retreated from the political field, but I do think I need to be involved in organizations and I will still voice without censorship from those positions. I do expect the government to extend their pressure on the political sector to other sectors in Hong Kong, so we need more attention and awareness about that. I will personally choose this path.