The Value of Freedom: Burning Questions for Hong Kongers

The Value of Freedom: Burning Questions for Hong Kongers

Lecture at the Senate of the Italian Republic
By Joshua Wong

Rome, November 18, 2020 – Almost exactly one year after Joshua Wong’s first hearing at the Senate of the Italian Republic, causing a diplomatic row between Members of the Italian Parliament and the Chinese Ambassador to Italy who had accused them of “making a grave error” and “acting irresponsabily”, Joshua Wong returned to talk from that same Senate. Upon invitation by Senator Adolfo Urso, former Foreign Minister and President of the Global Committee Amb. Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, and Global Committee scientific council coordinator Laura Harth, Joshua held an inspiring lecture dedicated to the universal value of Freedom and the struggle for Hong Kong.

We hereby publish the integral text of Joshua Wong’s Lecture, followed by Ambassador Terzi’s closing remarks.

The Value of Freedom: Burning Questions for Hong Kongers

Good morning.

I have the privilege today to share some of my thoughts and reflections about freedom, after taking part in social activism for eight years in Hong Kong. A movement calling for the withdrawal of the extradition law starting from last year had escalated into a demand for democracy and freedom. This city used to be prestigious for being the world’s most liberal economy, but now the infamous authoritarian government took away our freedom to election, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression and ideas.

Sometimes, we cannot avoid questioning the cause we are fighting for, the value of freedom. Despite a rather bleak prospect, why do we have to continue in this struggle? Why do we have to cherish freedom? What can we do to safeguard freedom at home and stay alert to attacks on freedom? In answering these questions, I hope to walk through three episodes in the previous year.

Turning to 2020, protests are not seen as frequently as they used to be on the media lens, partly because of the pandemic, but more importantly for the authoritarian rule. While the world is busy fighting the pandemic, our government took advantage of the virus to exert a tighter grip over our freedom. Putting the emergency laws in place, public assemblies in Hong Kong were banned. Most recently, a rally to support press freedom organized by journalists was also forbidden. While many people may ask if it is the end of street activism, ahead of us in the fight for freedom is another battleground: the court and the prison.

Freedom Fighters in Courtrooms and in Jail

Part of the huge cost incurred in the fight for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong is the increasing judicial casualties. As of today, more than 10 thousand people have been arrested since the movement broke out, more than a hundred of them are already locked up in prison. Among the 2,300 protestors who are prosecuted, 700 of them may be sentenced up to ten years for rioting charges.

Putting these figures into context, I wish to tell you what life is like, as a youngster in today’s Hong Kong. I was humbled by a lot of younger protestors and students whose exceptional maturity are demonstrated in courtrooms and in prison. What is thought to be normal university life is completely out of the question because very likely the neighbour next door or the roommate who cooked you lunch today will be thrown to jail on the next.

I do prison visits a few times a month to talk to activists who are facing criminal charges or serving sentences for their involvement in the movement. It is not just a routine of my political work, but it becomes my life as an activist. Since the movement, prison visits has also become the daily lives of many families.

But it is always an unpleasant experience passing through the iron gates one after one to enter the visitors’ room, speaking to someone who is deprived of liberty, for a selflessly noble cause. As an activist serving three brief jail terms, I understand that the banality of the four walls is not the most difficult to endure in jail. What is more unbearable is the control of thought and ideas in every single part of our daily routine enforced by the prison system. It will diminish your ability to think critically and the worst of it will persuade you to give up on what you are fighting for, if you have not prepared it well. Three years ago when I wrote on the first page of prison letters, which later turned into a publication called the ‘Unfree Speech’, I was alarmed at the environment of the prison cell. Those letters were written in a state in which freedom was deprived of and in which censorship was obvious. It brings us to question ourselves: other than physical constraints like prison bars, what makes us continue in the fight for freedom and democracy?

Mutual Support to Activists behind-the-scene

The support for this movement is undiminished over these 17 months. There are many beautiful parts in the movement that continue to revitalise the ways we contribute to this city, instead of making money on our own in the so-called global financial centre. In particular, it is the fraternity, the mutual assistance among protestors that I cherished the most.

As more protestors are arrested, people offer help and assistance wholeheartedly — we sit in court hearings even if we don’t know each other, and do frequent prison visits and write letters to protesters in detention. In major festivals and holidays, people gathered outside the prison to chant slogans so that they won’t feel alone and disconnected. This is the most touching part to me for I also experienced life in jail.

The cohesion, the connection and bonding among protestors are the cornerstone to the movement. At the same time, these virtues gave so much empowerment to the mass public who might not be able to fight bravely in the escalating protests. These scenes are not able to be captured by cameras, but I’m sure it is some of the most important parts of Hong Kong’s movement that I hope the world will remember.

I believe this mutual support transcends nationality or territory because the value of freedom does not alter in different places. More recently, Twelve Hongkong activists, all involved in the movement last year, were kidnapped by China’s coastal guard when fleeing to Taiwan for political refugee in late-August. All of them are now detained secretly in China, with the youngest aged only 16. We suspect they are under torture during detention and we call for help on the international level, putting up #SAVE12 campaign on twitter. In fact, how surprising it is to see people all over the world standing with the dozen detained protestors for the same cause. I’m moved by activists in Italy, who barely knew these Hong Kong activists, even took part in a hunger strike last month calling for immediate release of them. This form of interconnectivity keeps us in spirit and to continue our struggle to freedom and democracy.

Understanding the Value of freedom in the University Battle

A year ago on this day, Hong Kong was embroiled in burning clashes as the police besieged the Polytechnic University. It was a day we will not forget and this wound is still bleeding in the hearts of many Hong Kongers. A journalist stationed in the university at that time once told me that being at the scene could only remind him of the Tiananmen Square Massacre 31 years ago in Beijing. There was basically no exit except going for the dangerous sewage drains.

That day, thousands of people, old or young, flocked to districts close to the university before dawn, trying to rescue protestors trapped inside the campus. The reinforcements faced grave danger too, for police raided every corner of the small streets and alleys, arresting a lot of them. Among the 800+ arrested on a single day, 213 people were charged with rioting. For sure these people know there will be repercussions. It is the conscience driving them to take to the streets regardless of the danger, the conscience that we should stand up to brutality and authoritarianism, and ultimately to fight for freedoms that are guaranteed in our constitution. As my dear friend, Brian Leung once said, ‘’Hong Kong Belongs to Everyone Who Shares Its Pain’’. I believe the value of freedom is exemplified through our compassion to whom we love, so much that we are willing to sacrifice the freedom of our own.

Defending freedom behind the bars

No doubt there is a terrible price to pay in standing up to the Beijing and Hong Kong government. But after serving a few brief jail sentences and facing the continuing threat of harassment, I learnt to cherish the freedom I have for now, and I shall devote every bit what I have to strive for the freedom of those who have been ruthlessly denied.

The three episodes I shared with you today — the courtroom, visiting prisoners, the battle of university continue to remind me of the fact that the fight for freedom has not ended yet. In the coming months, I will be facing a maximum of 5 years in jail for unauthorized assembly and up to one ridiculous year for wearing a mask in protest. But prison bars would never stop me from activism and thinking critically.

I only wish that during my absence, you can continue to stand with the people of Hong Kong, by following closely to the development, no matter the ill-fated election, the large-scale arrest under National Security Law or the twelve activists in China. To defy the greatest human rights abusers is the essential way to restore democracy of our generation, and the generation following us.

Thank you.

18 November 2020
Joshua Wong

concluding remarks

The Lecture, to which a cross-party group of Members of both Chambers partook with statements of support for the struggle for freedom and democracy in Hong Kong, was concluded by former Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata, who stated:

Dear Joshua, it is a great privilege to listen to the extremely important Appeal to the Highest Italian Institutions, to get their unconditional support to the cause of Democracy, respect of fundamental Human Rights and Freedoms in Hong Kong.

Five months after China has imposed an oppressive national security law on Hong Kong, in blatant violation of the international law and commitments undertaken by the People’s Republic of China, a creeping crackdown is happening.

With the absurd provocation of ousting four pro-democracy lawmakers from the legislative council, Beijing’s totally abused the power to remove any politician without going through the courts.

After the very clear and binding commitments undertaken in 1997, China no longer bothers with keeping even a vague appearance of democracy and Rule of Law. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee said lawmakers could be disqualified if they promoted or supported Hong Kong’s independence or declined to recognize Chinese sovereignty.

Carrie Lam had earlier hinted that all sitting lawmakers could continue in the Legco until new elections in 2021. This week she changed track on the four opposition members, proving once again that she is under orders from Beijing.

It is a scandal to which the international community must firmly react. It means the tightening of China’s grip not only in Hong Kong, but in the whole region, and all over the world. Teachers are being targeted. Journalists are arrested. Pro-Beijing papers go after judges deemed too lenient. Chinese authorities  deny the separation of powers in Hong Kong.

All that reflects the public assertiveness of President Xi Jinping that China’s model is an effective alternative to flawed western democracy. It comes with many western countries preoccupied by new waves of coronavirus spread from Wuhan. China’s government has even the nerve to say that it seeks to reorder the multilateral system.

By cancelling freedom and Rule of Law in Hong Kong’s, the Chinese Communist Party shows the true face under its mask. We cannot accept a multilateral system “reordered ” by the Orwellian State of Chinese surveillance and persecutions. Western countries must extend sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act against Chinese officials involved in the clampdown in the territory.

Joshua, last year you called Hong Kong the “new Berlin in a new cold war”. Over the past year, China has turned it into something even worse than the Communism in East Berlin.

Dear Joshua, as you beautifully quoted Brian Leung: “Hong Kong Belongs to Everyone Who Shares Its Pain”. I assure you that as we wake up over these past months to the news of new arrests almost every morning, as was the case again this very morning with the arrest of former pro-democracy lawmakers Ray Chan, Chu-Hoidick Eddie and Ted Hui ,we share in your pain, as we are inspired and in awe of the Hong Kong people whom we may not have met, but have grown to love deeply for their courage. So while we keep hoping it will not be in your absence, on behalf of the Global Committee for the Rule of Law “Marco Pannella” and a growing cross-party group of Italian MPs, we promise to continue standing with the courageous people from Hong Kong in their rightful struggle for freedom and democracy. – Laura Harth

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