Joshua Wong from prison: “China is a threat to world freedom”
A translation of Die Welt’s interview with the Hong Kong freedom fighter currently in solitary confinement
On November 23, Joshua Wong and Ivan Lam plead guilty to charges of organising and inciting “unlawful assembly” related to the surrounding of Hong Kong police headquarters by protesters on June 21, 2019. In the same trial, Agnes Chow had earlier plead guilty. All three were immediately remanded in custody pending sentencing on December 2. Joshua and Ivan were sent to Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre, where Joshua was placed in solitary confinement because, he was told by prison authorities, a foreign body had been detected in his abdomen in an x-ray taken upon his incarceration and he had to be placed under observation in isolation for three to five days. Many in Hong Kong suspected the treatment was in retaliation for Joshua’s efforts on behalf of prisoners’ rights.
Joshua has been a regular columnist for Die Welt am Sonntag for some time. Die Welt submitted written questions to Joshua and, from his cell, he responded in writing.
Joshua is continuing to write from prison. You can access his letters by contributing to his Patreon account.
WELT: Joshua Wong, how are you?
Joshua Wong: I feel like a dissident in China. In the past three weeks, altogether 23 activists, journalists and representatives have been arrested. Every day, activists are on trial and demonstrators are sent to prison.
WELT: Why have you plead guilty to two charges?
Wong: After consulting our lawyers, Ivan Lam and I plead guilty. Compared to the 12,000 Hong Kong people [the actual number is a little over 2,000; perhaps this was a typographical error] on trial and the twelve Hong Kong people being held in China, the attacks on me are relatively less important. I trust my lawyers who advise me of my interests. I can’t comment on the judicial issues involved in this case because the government might use that further persecute me.
WELT: Could you describe a bit the arrangement between your lawyers and the prosecutors?
Wong: No further comment.
WELT: How have you been treated up to now by the prison guards?
Wong: I am being kept in solitary confinement. I can’t leave my cell and am not allowed to meet any other prisoners. I am prohibited from exercising outside, something that the inmates here value greatly. Because the lights in the cell are on 24 hours a day, it’s difficult to sleep. I have to use my surgical mask to cover my eyes in order to fall asleep.
WELT: What in your opinion is the reason for these prison conditions?
Wong: It’s not unusual for well-known inmates to be kept in solitary confinement. In my case, I’m convinced that the prison guards want to prevent any contact between myself and other inmates because many of them are activists, some of whom I visited at the beginning of the year. After having spent several periods in prison, I’ve committed myself to working for the rights of prisoners. In June, I sent a report to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights about the mistreatment of activists in prison. From that point of view, the prison authorities have no reason to be nice to me.
WELT: Are you afraid you’ll be sent to China?
Wong: I’m not so worried about myself. What worries me more is the fate of the twelve Hong Kong people in Chinese custody. I am, after all, in Hong Kong; I can contact my friends, colleagues, and lawyers, and I have access to medicine. On the 93rd day after their arrest, the families of the twelve activists finally received a letter from them, which was at the very least a sign they are still alive. But judging by the content of the letter, they’ve been mistreated: they’ve made confessions that are likely coerced. For example, they say that they’ve already appointed lawyers recommended by the authorities and that they regret their activism. Compared to that situation, I’m ok.
WELT: What do you fear the most?
Wong: I’m learning to overcome my fear. Perhaps the authorities are waiting for a good time to charge me under the national security law. But what worries me most of all is that the world could interpret my arrest as the end of the democracy movement. But it’s not the end of our struggle. On the contrary, we continue to struggle, even from prison.
WELT: What gives you strength?
Wong: In the past year, with the outbreak of the mass protests, the smell of teargas became part of our collective memory. I often think of what Brian Leung, one of the activists, has said: “More than language and values, what unites all Hong Kong people is pain.” For that reason, it’s an honour for me to have fought from the beginning side by side with all of the protesters, regardless of the potential imprisonment. It is also the case that I have faith in my fellow Hong Kong citizens. “We also thank God for our suffering that we must take upon ourselves because of our faith,” it says in Letter to the Romans in the New Testament. “Because suffering makes one patient. Patience then deepens and anchors our faith, and that in turn strengthens our hope.” Once sown, the seeds will one day sprout. We won’t give up but instead will continue the struggle. That is what gives me strength.
WELT: You were disqualified from running for parliament. You’ve also been imprisoned several times. Now you’re being prosecuted, in addition to which you’ve been remanded in custody. Is this an escalation we’re seeing?
Wong: Yes, Beijing is increasingly using Hong Kong’s judicial system to persecute protesters and activists. So it doesn’t just have to do with me. Beijing is tightening its grip, and all freedoms and rights are at stake. In that sense, it doesn’t matter at all what social role one has. Teachers, journalists, judges — the escalation targets every one of us as well as people living in exile. The escalation spills notably over into the rest of the world. Beijing has successfully produced a chilling effect, including in Germany. Universities, journalists and businesses — all are forced to abide by Chinese norms. The escalation in Hong Kong is a symptom of a bigger problem: China is threatening the freedom of the world.
WELT: When you look back over your own decisions, have you made any mistakes?
Wong: I have during the eight years I’ve been an activist made many mistakes. I wish I had learned more quickly and listened better. And now that I’m in solitary confinement, I miss my family. I wish I had spoken more gently to my parents in the past. There were times when they were very worried about me, and I did too little to comfort them.
WELT: Do you feel you’ve been treated fairly by the judicial system?
Wong: I lost my faith in this judicial system long ago. One cannot expect that institutions can protect you from the injurious effects of abuse of power when the system itself is manipulated by those in power. I think my case will draw the world’s attention to the arbitrary power of the judicial system, whose impartiality has already been severely damaged by the undue influence and systematic violence of Beijing. After two verdicts, two more trials await me. Besides that, the Department of Justice demands I pay about €12,000 in court costs for a case related to the Umbrella Movement that I lost — that was my second prison sentence. This is not made any easier by the fact that I have been denied legal aid, yet another abuse for which the government is responsible.
WELT: What do you think is the Chinese government’s ultimate goal in imprisoning you?
Wong: I think its goal is that I serve one prison term after the other. I face two other trials, and it is practical for the government to keep me behind bars so as to prevent me from being an activist. But neither imprisonment nor disqualification from the elections will stop us. What we are showing the world is the value of freedom.
WELT: Will the Hong Kong democracy movement lose momentum due to your imprisonment?
Wong: No. From the very beginning, this movement has had no leader. We are self-organized; no one gives anyone orders. We take action but not for ourselves, rather because we plain and simple beliefe in doing what is right. I don’t think we’ll stop doing that just because one person is imprisoned. Every day activists are on trial, every day protesters are thrown in prison. It’s true we’re dealing with a harsh crackdown by the government, and because of the coronavirus there are fewer opportunities to protest. But Hong Kong people resist government repression every single day by their actions. Perhaps not all are recognisable as protest, but the momentum exists as much as ever, just in another form. Five years ago, after the Umbrella Movement, we all thought that mass protests had become no longer possible. But the bravery and the commitment of every single Hong Kong person brought us through this dark valley and made the impossible possible.
WELT: Where do you see Hong Kong in a year?
Wong: Hong Kong is going through a difficult period right now, and we expect, as I said, a government crackdown. In the past three weeks, 23 activists, journalists and elected representatives have been arrested. Every day one of us is on trial or is imprisoned. I can’t just be excessively optimistic and say that in a year, everything will be fine in Hong Kong. Then I would be spreading false hope. But total pessimism is also inappropriate. In the next year most likely more protesters and activists will end up in prison, but Hong Kong will continue to fight. We are constantly developing new methods of resistance.
WELT: What would you like to tell the world?
Wong: I would like to tell the world that the Hong Kong movement hasn’t come to a standstill just because Agnes Chow, Ivan Lam and I are in prison. Please follow vigilantly what happens in Hong Kong because people are still fighting for freedom and democracy there. And also beyond Hong Kong: In Thailand, Belarus, and in Iran people are fighting against totalitarian regimes. And Taiwan is defending itself constantly against Beijing. Please stand with Hong Kong and show solidarity with those who value freedom as much as you do. I would like to show my appreciation to all activists who are facing trial or imprisonment and all who suffer because they cannot go back home: We are not without fear but we are the braver ones.