Overseas Hong Kong activists revealed a new charter as they try to sustain the pro-democracy movement

Eight overseas Hong Kong activists launched the “2021 Hong Kong Charter” on Sunday, hoping to unite overseas Hong Kong people through the charter and using the unity to sustain Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Some of them think that the city can learn some valuable lessons from Taiwan’s decades of experience in fighting for democracy.

After China’s National People’s Congress approved the bill to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system, eight overseas Hong Kong activists launched the “2021 Hong Kong Charter” on Sunday, calling for solidarity among overseas Hong Kongers.

In the charter, they pointed out that Hong Kong people have been striving for a democratic political system since the 1980s, but China’s unchanged one-party dictatorship has repeatedly breached the Sino-British Joint Declaration. They accused Beijing of putting the last nail in the coffin for “One Country, Two Systems" by approving the election overhaul.

“With the 2021 Hong Kong Charter, we shall unite the diasporic communities, to come together at the international front, for the eventual Liberation of Hong Kong,” wrote the charter. “We vow to stand against the oppression from the Chinese Communist Party, to strive for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, to continue to safeguard our determination for Hong Kong’s autonomy both locally and overseas, to advocate for international collaboration in countering the Chinese Communist Party’s global aggression, and to safeguard the universal values of freedom and democracy.​”

Sunny Cheung, an exiled Hong Kong activist and one of the eight initiators of the charter, said many pro-democracy movements have initiated charters before, so he hopes to use the same method to document the voice of this generation of Hong Kong people.

He said the charter is roughly divided into four parts and the group wants to emphasize the belief of diasporic Hong Kongers because they want to demonstrate their unity and solidarity, as they believe Hong Kongers need to stay united in order to reclaim Hong Kong.

“In the second part of the charter, we also underscore the unique identity, culture, and values of Hong Kong people,” Cheung said during the virtual press conference. “We also emphasized that Hong Kongers should be able to decide Hong Kong’s domestic affairs and we don’t accept the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to intervene. We urge the CCP to abolish the National Security Law and release all political prisoners. That’s our ultimate demand.”

The third part is about China, in which the group called on the Chinese government to end one-party dictatorship and stop “all genocidal behaviors in Tibet, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia” as well as “respecting the self-determination rights of the Taiwanese people.” In the last part, they underscore the importance of bipartisan lobbying and try to engage with more allies in the free world.

Nathan Law, who is also one of the initiators of the charter, said most of the group are not able to go back to Hong Kong and some of them are even on Hong Kong Police Force’s wanted list. However, they hope to “build up their pathway back home and consolidate the efforts for international advocacy work.”

“As we all know, Hong Kong’s freedom is under serious attack and there has been erosion on Hong Kong people’s rights,” Law said during the press conference. “People who raise international advocacy work in Hong Kong will be easily indicted under the weaponized legal system, so it is the diaspora community’s responsibility to speak up for Hong Kong people.”

Ted Hui, a former pro-democracy legislator who went into exile late last year, said even though he can speak for Hong Kong without fear when he sees compatriots in Hong Kong are suffering, he realizes that every moment he is enjoying freedom, it comes with responsibilities.

“If ever I’m relaxed and don’t use the freedom I have to fight for Hong Kong’s battle, I will be blaming and condemning myself,” Hui said. “The charter is a pledge between me and my homeland. Reviving Hong Kong is what we ought to do.”

Recognize the diversity in Hong Kong’s diaspora community

During the Q & A session, Nathan Law talked about the diverse background of all the initiators. He said while showing solidarity is important, the group doesn’t want members of the diaspora community to think that they are trying to enforce something on them or building a new block of activists.

“While the eight of us are glued together with common values and beliefs, it’s important that we turn it into a charter or something that everyone can agree on,” Law said. “That way, we can consolidate our consensus in this very complex diaspora community by having common beliefs and faith.”

Brian Leung, an exiled Hong Kong activist who also participated in the initiation of the charter, said based on their past experiences, it is important to first acknowledge the diversity of the diaspora community and then recognize that actual strength comes from having a solid basis of grassroots organizations all over the world.

“We have to build and consolidate the strength of our organization at the local level, and then try to build dialogues in the region,’ Leung explained. “If we have done so successfully, we can start building dialogues across the world. The charter is the beginning of consolidating the effort among different communities. Maybe we can strategize and think about the future together.”

Sharon Yam, an associate professor of writing, rhetoric, and digital studies at the University of Kentucky, said the anti-extradition bill movement in 2019 attracted support from different social groups as they use common protest slogans to promote an ethos of solidarity across difference, and a tolerance of diverse tactics as long as they are all directed towards the shared goal of challenging the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.

“However, despite Hong Kongers’ shared experiences in the movement, how each individual interprets the meaning of the movement may differ,” Yam said. “We need to be careful not to subsume these differences and diverse viewpoints under the banner of solidarity.”

How does Taiwan’s experience influence Hong Kong?

Over the last few weeks, Hong Kong people have used Taiwan’s experience in fighting for democracy in the 1970s to describe the situation that Hong Kong people are facing now. After 47 pro-democracy figures appeared in court for a marathon-style hearing earlier this month, Nathan Law wrote on Facebook that the marathon-style hearing is the closest to Taiwan’s mass-trial during the Kaohsiung Incident.

Last week, Sunny Cheung and other Hong Kong activists opened a room in Clubhouse to talk about how Hong Kong could learn from Taiwan’s experience during the pro-democracy movement. Cheung thinks that Hong Kong’s diaspora community still has a lot to improve when it comes to coordination and cooperation.

As the space for dissent disappears in Hong Kong, Cheung said many people in Hong Kong are having high expectations on the international front. “What I tried to do is that I published a magazine with other exiled activists, and it was an important step for us as we try to connect with each other,” Cheung said. “We try to spread the message back to Hong Kong through the internet and other channels. Since we can’t discuss a lot of things in Hong Kong now, people overseas have the responsibility to maintain the kind of discussion and keep the memories.”

Cheung said overseas Taiwanese people are very good at creating cultural organizations or diaspora associations, and they also try to teach second-generation Taiwanese in the U.S. and other countries to speak their mother tongue. “They are really good at telling their stories and differentiate their culture, history, and identity from that of China,” Cheung said. “I think this is a very important move. In some top American universities, there is now a trend of trying to distinguish Taiwan studies from China studies.”

Cheung thinks it’s important for overseas Hong Kongers to learn how to tell stories about Hong Kong people and use techniques to consolidate their image around the world. “No matter in academia, politics or civil society, we need to establish Hong Kongers’ image and try to let the world know that Hong Konger is really special and we deserve their help.”

Hong Kong is entering a phase of tightened control

During an online seminar held by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology on March 12, two academics from Taiwan compared Taiwan’s decades-long experience under authoritarian rule with dramatic changes that have been taking place in Hong Kong over the last few years.

Wu Jieh-min, a research fellow at the institute of sociology at Taiwan’s Academia Sinica, said the reason why Taiwan’s pro-democracy movement would succeed was that the opposition forces didn’t fall apart following the mass-trial for the Kaohsiung Incident. A new generation of pro-democracy figures took over the movement and its relevant works after the first generation of activists were arrested.

“Taiwan’s pro-democracy movement remained united at critical moments, and they were able to conquer internal differences under authoritarian rule,” Wu said. “These factors allowed the organizaton of the movement and Taiwan’s nationalism to survive.”

Wu pointed out that Hong Kong went through the electoral reform in 2010, the division following the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the unity between peaceful and frontline protesters during the anti-extradition bill movement in 2019. He thinks that these experiences show that under authoritarian rule, internal divisions will become an important issue, and those in power will try to create division and infighting among the opposition, causing members of the opposition to experience traumas related to the movement.

“Taiwan is very familiar with these experiences and Hong Kong has also been trying to conquer these problems,” Wu said. “Under authoritarian rule, those being ruled can’t avoid recognizing ideological divisions. Taiwan had a long history of being colonized and oppressed, so Taiwanese people know that if they don’t remain united at critical moments, the momentum of the movement will be destroyed.”

Chen Tsui-lian, a professor at National Taiwan University’s history department, said there are some external factors that helped Taiwan to complete its democratic transition. “Taiwan’s civil society played the role of preserving collective memories during the martial law era, and after the U.S. severed diplomatic tie with Taiwan in the 1970s, it created an opportunity for Taiwan to push for democratic transition, as the government at the time began to lose its legitimacy after losing Washington’s support,” Chen said.

Additionally, since many third-world countries began their process of democratic transition, Chiang Ching-kuo, Taiwan’s President at the time, felt a lot of pressure to begin the process of democratic transition. On the other hand, several countries are experiencing democratic regression in recent years, which increases the challenges facing Hong Kong.

“If we compare Taiwan’s experience with Hong Kong’s current situation, then Hong Kong is about to enter into a phase of tightened control,” Chen said. “Space for legal, political, and electoral participation have all become limited.”

Wu Jieh-min said China is now imposing a “second handover” on Hong Kong, as Beijing tries to assimilate Hong Kong into its internal political and cultural structure. He thinks it’ll be worth observing whether Hong Kong will become the next Shanghai or Shenzhen over the next few years.

“Many Asian countries are dealing with the tough issue of ‘China,’ and Hong Kong will have to think about how it can survive and a long-lasting ‘China’ problem,” Wu said. “The problem will not disappear even if Xi Jinping’s government fell apart. For the oppressed, survival is important but it will be very challenging to ensure that they are surviving in a meaningful way. Taiwan and Hong Kong both need to deal with this issue.”

This piece was first published 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.