Lee Cheuk-Yan: Hong Kong needs to be free from authoritarian rule

Hong Kong labor rights activist and former pro-democracy legislator Lee Cheuk-Yan is one of the nine activists that were found guilty in a trial related to a march that took place on August 18, 2019. Before the trial, he said he hasn’t lost hope in the prospect of Hong Kong and called on civil society to remain united.

Question: Can you share with us how you view the trial on Thursday, which could determine whether you have to be imprisoned or not?

Lee Cheuk-Yan: We are very honored to be with the people at the march and I want to remind the people that it was a big march and big rally that 1.7 million people responded to the call for a peaceful assembly in Victoria Park.

What we have done is actually just helping people disperse, but helping people to disperse has now been charged as an illegal march. No matter what outcome it is on Thursday, even if we are sentenced or jailed, we are very honored to be jailed for standing together with the people of Hong Kong in expressing our views and will for democracy and freedom.

We will continue the fight because the five demands on August 18 2019 had not been met yet. We will continue the struggle. Tomorrow, I think no matter what outcome it is, we will continue to stand firm. Having said that, I also need to say that even if we can have a verdict of acquittal on Thursday, I have another trial and some of the others have more trials coming up.

I have a trial on April 7 and another one on May 17, and the fourth trial is still waiting for a trial date. Even if I can be acquitted on Thursday, I don’t think I can be acquitted in the future. No matter what outcome it is, we feel that we are honored to be with the people and to go to jail for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong. We salute all the people who participate and take part in all the protest movements in 2019.

Question: We have seen the Hong Kong government trying to stack several cases against certain high-profile activists like you. How would you describe the recent waves of crackdowns and the imposition of new regulations that Beijing and the Hong Kong government have imposed on the city?

Lee Cheuk-Yan: I would say it’s now a day of reckoning for the people in Hong Kong by the Chinese government. It is a political retaliation for all the things that we have done back in 2019. I think they are taking a three-prong strategy, which is political prosecution as a way to silence the activists, the national security law to create the chilling effect on people voicing out, and thirdly, the election change that they imposed on Hong Kong with the direct election of legislators reduced from 50% to 22%, a very big regression.

All the strategy is out there and I think for high-profile activists for many years, I think we have to tell the people in Hong Kong that maybe going to jail is part of the struggle and they can jail us, but they can’t jail our spirit. I think it applies to all the people in Hong Kong that the spirit of fighting for democracy and freedom will still go on.

I think it’s very important that we still stay active and optimistic about the future of Hong Kong even in difficult conditions. We need to do so by organizing around the civil society and strengthening the civil society so we can fight back in the future.

Question: Some have argued that Hong Kong is becoming more and more similar to China. How do you view such a claim?

Lee Cheuk-Yan: We are getting very close to the system of China but not yet. I think it’s very important to emphasize the “not yet.” We must hold on to the very narrow space that we have and not give up. Although things are getting very difficult for the people in Hong Kong and it seems that both the legal system and political system are looking more like the ones in China, I think we still have a very strong civil society and I think we need to hold onto that.

I don’t know whether it will be completely wiped out just like how it is in China, but we hope it will not be like that. We will still hold onto what we have and prepare for the next opportunity to reclaim what we want, which is democracy, freedom, and Hong Kong.

Question: You have been at the forefront of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement over the last few decades. What are some of the memorable moments for you in your political career?

Lee Cheuk-Yan: I have been trying to mobilize people to speak out during my four-decade-long activism and I think one thing very important is organizing. I think we need to create the organization and machinery with allies together into a movement that can push on for democracy.

Civil society is important and it’s still the basis in Hong Kong. With that basis, we can go for election as I have done in the past. Now we may have to return back to civil society. The organization part is very important.

The second part is that with these organizations, we have been able to mobilize massive turnout at very important events happening in Hong Kong, including the 1989 democracy movement in China. We had a one-million march supporting that. When the government wants to introduce the national security law back in 2002, we were able to organize and get it defeated in 2003.

The Umbrella movement and protest movement all showed very much clearly the strong will for freedom and democracy from Hong Kong people. I think that’s the second takeaway, which is that with the spirit still there, we only need to spark to trigger a strong protest movement in Hong Kong.

Question: What would be your message to the international community in light of the deteriorating conditions in Hong Kong?

Lee Cheuk-Yan: I want to tell the international community to fight for values and fight for what you believe in. Very often, people are compromised by the motivation of economic profit. It’s now more and more important in this world that people with shared values of freedom and democracy should stand together and not compromise for the sake of economic return.

Secondly, I think for the people in Hong Kong, we will keep fighting, we will keep the spirit going, and keep lighting the candles to show the way forward even in a very dark tunnel. We hope the world can see our light and stand with us.

Question: Is there anything that you want to say to the younger generation in Hong Kong?

Lee Cheuk-Yan: I think for the younger generation in Hong Kong, I would say that I’m really proud of them because they all have shown the spirit in the fight during the protest movement. I’m sad about the sacrifices that the younger generation has to pay for Hong Kong.

I think what we also learned is that we all have to learn to pay the price. Thanks to the younger generation for showing us their courage and defiant spirit. I think in the future, we should focus more on unity. Sometimes there may be differences in the strategies, but I think one thing very clear is that all the people in Hong Kong share the same fate and we share the same struggle. Hong Kong needs to maintain its democracy and freedom and it needs to be free from authoritarian rule. I think this is the common goal and I think we should stand together around it in the future.

This piece is first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.

William Yang is a journalist based in Taiwan, where he writes about politics, society, and human rights issues in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.