Illustration Courtesy Asia Democracy Chronicles

How Hong Kongers continue to fight for democracy from abroad.

This was originally published by our partner, Asia Democracy Chronicles.

Photo credits: Illustration Courtesy Asia Democracy Chronicles

Sunny Cheung is a young activist who has been forced into exile from Hong Kong since 2020. He serves as an advisor to the Hong Kong Democracy Council and is a co-founder of diasporic Hong Konger magazine, Flow HK. Cheung was actively involved in international lobbying during and after the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement in 2019, and has been raising global awareness and prompting international responses to Hong Kong’s vastly deteriorating human rights landscape. He won the pro-democracy primary for the Legislative Council Election in 2020 before fleeing his home region after the Hong Kong government began arresting and detaining political dissidents with the draconian National Security Law.

Cheung recently spoke to Asia Democracy Chronicles about his experiences and reflections as a pro-democracy activist living in exile.

By Sunny Cheung as told to Andrew Shum

In the summer of three years ago, I made one of the most difficult decisions of my life – to flee Hong Kong, the city I grew up in and deeply cherish. I realized that I had to leave after I found that I was stalked by some people who were acting suspiciously and the authorities started using the draconian national security law to target political dissidents such as Jimmy Lai, the founder of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy newspaper, the and now defunct Apple Daily, and Agnes Chow, one of the prominent young activists. Both were arrested on Aug. 10, 2020 for “collusion with foreign forces.”

Although I felt anxious and unsettled on the flight, I didn’t dwell on whether I would be able to return. However, after landing in Britain and living in a tiny room furnished with nothing more than a bed and lacking a kitchen, the reality hit me – I had begun a new chapter of my life in exile. I was going to live overseas for a long while and could only watch the deterioration of Hong Kong human rights as an exile. 

Five months later, in January 2021, when I was watching the news about the mass arrest of 53 pro-democracy politicians, activists, and lawyers, who participated in the pro-democracy primary for the Legislative Council Election, I felt a painful sense of powerlessness because I was not there with my friends.

Despite struggling with feelings of sadness and impotence, I knew we needed to focus on resilience. I relocated to the United States to continue my studies and ramp up my international lobbying efforts. As the world’s foremost superpower willing to confront China, the U.S. is pivotal on the international stage; its policies can influence its allies. I hoped to contribute to international lobbying and promote changes in China’s policy in the U.S. and other nations with my knowledge and experience.

The international fight for Hong Kong faces an uphill battle compared to 2019. Authorities have effectively silenced civil society, leading to waning global attention. These new challenges demand a strategic shift in our lobbying efforts.

Notably, we successfully persuaded the U.S. government not to invite Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, John Lee, to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit held in November 2023 in San Francisco, California. It is remarkable because an invitation from the U.S. to John Lee, one of the least popular officials in Hong Kong who was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2020, would definitely have been a setback for Hong Kong’s democratic movement.

Our advocacy campaign for the closure of the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (HKETO) is another example demonstrating how Hong Kong diaspora groups can effectively convince the U.S. to maintain its focus on Hong Kong and exert pressure on the city government. 

With the continuing efforts of the U.S.-based Hong Kong activists, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a bipartisan bill in July 2023, named the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (HKETO) Certification Act, which requires the U.S. government to remove the privileges, exemptions, and immunities granted to the HKETO if it finds that Hong Kong has lost its high degree of autonomy. The U.S. House Foreign Affairs committee made a similar move in December 2023. Both chambers will discuss the bill further in the next step of the legislation process.

After relocating to the U.S., I also had the opportunity to meet activists from all over the world. Their stories have made me believe that cross-movement collaboration and mutual support between each other are vitally important as numerous Asian countries are grappling with authoritarian rule or democratic backsliding. 

For instance, the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan more than two years ago, triggering a mass exodus in the country. The human rights situations in Bangladesh and Burma are also very concerning. In India, once the world’s largest democratic country, democracy has ceased under the rule of Narendra Modi, as political scholar Larry Diamond said. Confronted with similar challenges, we must consider ways to strengthen our bonds and mutual support.

’ve also gained significant insights from Taiwanese diaspora groups and Korean friends who experienced a few decades of darkness under authoritarian rule, which saw the imprisonment and killing of many activists who were fighting for freedom. I vividly recall my first exposure to the concept of cross-movement collaboration during a trip organized by the Asia Democracy Network into Gwangju in 2019. 

I was stunned by the resilience of Koreans, who found ways to survive and resist despite harsh authoritarian rule and brutal crackdowns. During the democratization process of both countries, international lobbying played an important role. I am eager to learn from their knowledge and experience.

It’s not only about how we Hong Kongers learn from others. We have also inspired our friends fighting for democracy in neighboring countries. I was deeply moved when an Indian politician told me about how they were inspired by the creative strategies used by Hong Kongers such as discussing movement tactics anonymously on Telegram and using Airdrop to disseminate information during the Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill protests. They found Airdrop extremely useful because activists could share information via Bluetooth when the network signals were weak. 

I believe that in the future, with greater experience in how to face democratic backsliding and repression from the state authorities, Hong Kongers will have much to offer our international friends facing similar challenges.

I am also impressed by our Asian friends who remain engaged with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy fight. Activists from the Milk Tea Alliance (Taiwan, Thailand, and Burma) continue to join the protests against China and show their solidarity with us. They are also interested in joining seminars and related activities focused on Hong Kong. This kind of mutual support is invaluable, as it reminds us that we are not alone in our struggles.

Since I left Hong Kong, I have grappled with loneliness and a sense of guilt for not being able to stand alongside my friends back home who face repression. However, rather than succumb to these negative feelings, I strive to transform them into motivation. 

A Taiwanese senior activist who once told me, “If you experience emotional trauma in social movements, then you should seek healing by continuing your participation.” This mantra constantly fuels my ongoing efforts to advocate for democracy and human rights. 

Now, I know I am not walking alone because I can feel the mutual support of many diasporic Hong Kongers and allies worldwide, fortifying my resolve to continue the fight for freedom in Hong Kong.

Andrew Shum is a Hong Kong human rights activist based in the United Kingdom. He was Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union and cofounder of Civil Rights Observer. Both groups disbanded due to political pressure.

ILLUSTRATION CREDIT: Asia Democracy Chronicles

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