Akwe Amosu: Hey, I’m Akwe Amosu and this is Strength and Solidarity. Strength and Solidarity is a podcast about the ideas driving – and disrupting – human rights work around the world.
First up in this episode,
- How solidarity with the Hong Kong democracy movement was – and wasn’t – built.
- And in our Coda, a 17th century Mexican nun tells men what she really thinks of them
Part One: Interview
AA: Over many months last year, like others, I was transfixed by extraordinary eruptions of street protest all around the world in Iran, Thailand, Lebanon, Belarus, Nigeria, Egypt, and so many other countries. Sometimes they were challenging distinctively local issues of inequity or injustice. Sometimes they were echoing a shared anger, as when the murder of George Floyd in the United States triggered rage against police impunity and racial injustice around the globe. In the middle of the year, 10 years of activism to defend democracy in Hong Kong, came to a head with a huge share of the population out in the streets, defying China’s determination to end the territory’s special status. One thing evident about the Hong Kong protests was that they were highly decentralized, a pattern we saw in many places. While that didn’t seem to limit an ability to mobilize there in Hong Kong, the movement also needed international voices raised on its behalf. This got me wondering, how do you build external solidarity when there’s no centralized leadership to organize it? So I sought out someone who played a key role in the Hong Kong demonstrations, Ching Yin Johnson, Yeung, formerly the convener of the civil human rights front and past that period general secretary of the Federation of Students in Hong Kong.
AA: Johnson, welcome.
Johnson Yeung: Thank you for having me.
AA: There are so many things I could ask you about the way the movement for democracy in Hong Kong evolved, but I’m particularly keen to understand how you thought about winning support from people in other parts of the world. The movement in Hong Kong didn’t have a centralized leadership. So how was solidarity being mobilized?
JY: We are lucky that Hong Kong communities, although they’re very small, they are scattered around almost every country in the world. So in the initial protests in June, there were more than 30 cities that overnight solidarity protested and all those 30 protests were organized by the diaspora. So this Hong Kong diaspora begins to become an anchor of the Hong Kong movement and a spokesperson of the Hong Kong people in foreign countries. So for instance, in the US, there is the establishment of the, Hong Kong Democracy Council, and they are formed by groups of Hong Kong scholars and activists. They do lobbying in Washington, they do press conferences, they do exhibitions, they do movie screening and invite members in the policy communities and also civil society groups in their own countries to join.
AA: And so who were they coordinating with, back in Hong Kong?
JY: Basically, these diaspora groups, they don’t coordinate much – they still talk to a lot of, movement organizations, or politicians in Hong Kong, but they don’t take orders from social movement organizations in Hong Kong. Rather, they have certain autonomy, they set up their own organization, they use their identity as Hong Kong immigrants to persuade and to lobby their representatives and they have their own theory of change. So, for instance, in the US, the theory of change of the Hong Kong diaspora groups is to pass legislation that will support Hong Kong. And for people who are in France or in the EU countries, their theory of change is trying to stop EU from selling weapons to the Hong Kong police. So there are lots of local autonomy, but, they are acting under certain principles. So, the five demands in the Hong Kong protest movement was very popular; those five demands include, holding police accountable, and also a universal suffrage. And because these five principles are largely accepted by the protesters, the diaspora groups were also acting in line with this demand, and tailor-made their advocacy along this five demands.
AA: So you guys on the ground in Hong Kong, you have a diaspora out there that is passionately motivated to support you. They get on and call their political representatives, they mobilize and have demonstrations and – that’s as far as it goes? Or do you then also reach out to other human rights organizations, other progressive social justice organizations that aren’t part of your diaspora? how are you relating to them?
JY: Hong Kong – we are very fortunate. You know, Hong Kong is a very lucky and privileged city and Hong Kong people are very connected with the international community, human rights organizations and business community. So Hong Kong activists themselves also have a lot of a networks. We have the human rights organizations and those human rights organizations perform the functions of advocating the Hong Kong human rights issues in the UN and in other multilateral mechanisms. They also offer support, like digital security. Sometimes economic support, like humanitarian support to, the activists, who are under threat. They also provide advice on, you know, how activists can protect themselves under police crackdown. So this solidarity is very much needed. And one thing to note is, in 2019, especially in the US, diaspora groups, they are working very hard to get a bipartisan support but at the initial phase, the Republicans and the right-wing politicians, they are more high profile in supporting Hong Kong. Bipartisan support was always there but the Republicans and the right wing politicians are more upfront about their support.
AA: And that included President Trump, right? I mean, you were getting some pretty, strong comments coming from him. Of course, he was already very hostile to the Beijing government so he probably was quite happy with this opportunity.
JY: Trump was actually not that supportive to the Hong Kong movement, from our point of view, because in June 2019 at the initial phase of the protest, Trump called the protesters rioters! And then there’s also a report from some international media that said when Trump was negotiating with China on the trade agreement, there was like a sort of consensus that, you know, if the trade agreement is accepted by both sides, then Trump will stay silent on the Hong Kong issues. It was about November2019 when the Hong Kong Democracy and Human Rights Act was passed, through hardline approach by both the Senate and the Congress, that makes Trump attitude change because all his allies in the legislature were supporting legislation that supports Hong Kong and that’s when his rhetoric starts to change a lot. But there are some right-wing figures who are really upfront to support the Hong Kong movement, like Ted Cruz. I think that makes the progressive movement in the US feel that the Hong Kong protest was largely a right-wing agenda, and also, you know, for the left wing and the progressive wing, they are more sympathetic to socialism, right?
AA: So essentially what was happening is that you have progressive and left wing organizations who you would have expected to be supporters for your movement, and yet, because there’s this strong Republican and right wing support being voiced, that alienates them.
JY: Yeah. Yeah. That’s sort of accurate, but I want to emphasize that the Hong Kong democracy movement was supported by Nancy Pelosi, James McGovern, and a lot of progressive figures since 2014, way before those right wing figures started to talk about Hong Kong. But of course, that doesn’t get into the US media because Hong Kong was not on the agenda in US politics. We all perceive politics and understand politics through the media and the echo chamber we engage. So it’s very easy for the progressive wing to feel like, oh, Hong Kong process is a right-wing issue. And I was in California last year in January, and I was reading a newspaper in Berkeley, a left wing newspaper. And one of the articles is “Down (with) the imperialist movement in Hong Kong!” “Safeguard China!” You know? I was like, why?! Because many of the progressive wing resonated with socialism, and China was trying to present themselves as a socialist country, even they are (one of) the most capitalist countries in the world! So there are like some disconnects in terms of how people understand the Hong Kong protest, and because the right-wing figures are also up front, it alienates some of the progressive community.
AA: So it’s interesting because, I mean, I guess this doesn’t really happen until well into 2020, but I think a lot of us made a parallel between the mobilization that you had been able to mount in Hong Kong and the way that the Black Lives Matter movements really got going in the United States. So how much solidarity was there between these two movements, the democracy movement in Hong Kong, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States?
JY: Um, it depends on the community. It’s very diverse. Hong Kong democracy movement also has Trump supporters. They were some Trump supporters in the pro-democracy movement. So course they’re very critical to the BLM. But there’s also a large groups of activists based in the US and also in Hong Kong – they went on march. They do photo ops and they also have events in Hong Kong and also in the US too, supporting the BLM. And they’re sharing our best practices and tactics – that’s obviously one way we can show solidarity with each other. But there’s an interesting story, which is, um, back in, I think it was May, uh, yeah: during the BLM protests, I was invited by one of the US organizations to give a talk and share the lessons of Hong Kong. Right after they announce my participation on Twitter, all the trolls ran into their Twitters and say, “you know, Hong Kong Movement is supported by the right wing, is an imperialist movement. Why do you side with the Hong Kong protest movement?” and eventually they have to cancel the event. So there are a lot of dynamics, in terms of solidarity and I don’t blame the organizers, right? They, they were trying to stay focused, and be active allies of the BLM protest so they don’t want to get things more complicated. But it also shows you how much dynamics in there, and also how much this information is destroying and undermining solidarity, because some of the trolls who were harassing the organizers were affiliated to Chinese state media.
AA: Now looking back. I mean, I think for many of us anyway, July kind of brought a major defeat for the movement. I don’t know if that’s how it looks to Hong Kongers, but from outside, it looks as though, the passage of the national security law and events subsequently, suggest that the movement has essentially been blocked. And so I want to ask you whether having more external support could have made a difference, whether a more organized model of solidarity could have changed anything? Or was this outcome inevitable?
JY: The Hong Kong movement’s major opponent is the Chinese government. So, it’s always difficult. It’s extremely difficult. China is the most powerful authoritarian country in human history so although the battle in Hong Kong, was cracked down by the government, we also escalate the attention and escalate the conflict into a battle between authoritarianism and global liberalism. So I don’t see that battle defeated yet. Hong Kong people is still in the fight in defending the international norms and, liberalism, and we need other escalations, we need to keep on organizing ourselves, enhance our resiliencies, and wait for another opportunity, or make our opportunities to protest, to pressure the government, and also to entrench the democratic values in Hong Kong. So more external support is needed, but sometimes I don’t like the word ‘external support’ because – it’s not just about Hong Kong, right? This issue that happened in Hong Kong is not just about Hong Kong! There shouldn’t be a distinction between outsiders of the movement and insiders of the movement. Everyone is an insider of this movement! If you don’t confront the rising authoritarianism in China, which is exerting the influence to other countries and trying to normalize the authoritarian model to other countries, the so-called outsider will also be affected.
AA: What’s your own situation? Are you and others in your position, able to continue to be engaged and organized, or are you having to pull back?
JY: Well, I’m still organizing. I’m organizing a new initiative. It’s very hard to wage a protest or any street action because of the, social distancing rules and the COVID-19 measures. But it is a time for organizers and activists to rethink, reflect, to deliberate and improve their, knowledge and strategies in waging trouble. It’s much, much more risky to be an activist, in Hong Kong now, than when I was a student activist ten years ago. Back then, we can try to charge the police, or you know, yell at a politician, without any consequences. Right now, if I wear a yellow mask or hold a protest slogan on the street, I could be arrested. So it’s getting more difficult. and the risk profile of me and also my other colleagues are rising, but we are also employing different mitigation measures to help protect ourselves, protect the peoples that we concern, and keep on organizing, because again, Hong Kong is a very privileged city, we receive a lot of attention, compared to activists in Cambodia and Myanmar back then; the protections on us are already larger so if the others were still organizing, why shouldn’t we?
AA: You said that it’s not just about what happens in Hong Kong, that it’s not just about who’s inside this movement, who’s outside the movement. So I want to ask you, how do you react to what happened at the US Capitol, in recent days? How do you see what Americans like to think of as the city on the hill – the place where democracy’s light is still burning – it came in for a lot of trash talk from Beijing and other authoritarian governments recently. How did you react?
JY: I was shocked, but not surprised, that when a populist leader was trying to stay in power, he is going to try everything in order to keep his power, we have been seeing that! And that’s why I’m not surprised because I’m witnessing Xi Jinping do that for so many years, I’m seeing, Duterte doing that for years. I’m seeing Putin doing that same thing, pulling the same tactics for years. So it’s not news for people who are living in a restrictive society. But I’m also heartbroken, because US has been promoting itself as the figure of democracy, and the irresponsible actions of Trump and his allies is providing a very good excuse and example to Xi Jinping, to undermine democracy’s value. And because most of the people are not political scientists, and political science and activists are not doing a very good job in promoting democratic values, most people only take democracy at its face value, meaning whether democracy brings good economies and stability. So as activists, we have to promote the intrinsic values of democracy, trying to talk to those who are in doubt with the democratic system set by the US. I also have mixed feelings to the future; although Trump will be out from his power, he still has a lot of strong supporter base, and the Republican it’s increasingly right wing and populist. And the voters who support Trump are still there.
AA: Okay. Johnson, thank you so much.
JY: Thank you.
AA: I reached Johnson Yeung in Hong Kong. You can find a transcript of his comments at the podcast page of our website, strengthandsolidarity.org.
Part two: The Coda
AA: Time for our “Coda”, in which someone active in the human rights field shares something that gives them inspiration or insight into the work they do. Every episode, we invite someone to tell us about a poem, an inspiring text or perhaps just a piece of music – that relates to their passion for rights and justice. And we have something pretty unusual for this episode: a woman philosopher and poet in seventeenth Century Mexico, who chose to enter religious orders rather than marry, and wrote a scorching poem denouncing the contradictory attitudes of men towards women. Human Rights lawyer Kayum Ahmed came across “A Philosophical Satire” by Juana Inés de la Cruz and was stunned by the power of a fiercely independent feminist voice, reaching down to us from over 300 years ago.
A Philosophical Satire
By Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz
Misguided men, who will chastise
a woman when no blame is due,
oblivious that it is you
who prompted what you criticize;
if your passions are so strong
that you elicit their disdain,
how can you wish that they refrain
when you incite them to their wrong?
You strive to topple their defense,
and then, with utmost gravity,
you credit sensuality
for what was won with diligence.
Your daring must be qualified,
your sense is no less senseless than
the child who calls the boogeyman,
then weeps when he is terrified.
Your mad presumption knows no bounds,
though for a wife you want Lucrece,
in lovers you prefer Thais,
thus seeking blessings to compound.
If knowingly one clouds a mirror
–was ever humor so absurd
or good counsel so obscured?–
can he lament that it’s not clearer?
From either favor or disdain
the selfsame purpose you achieve,
if they love, they are deceived,
if they love not, hear you complain.
There is no woman suits your taste,
though circumspection be her virtue:
ungrateful, she who does not love you,
yet she who does, you judge unchaste.
You men are such a foolish breed,
appraising with a faulty rule,
the first you charge with being cruel,
the second, easy, you decree.
So how can she be temperate,
the one who would her love expend?
if not willing, she offends,
but willing, she infuriates.
Amid the anger and torment
your whimsy causes you to bear,
one may be found who does not care:
how quickly then is grievance vent.
So lovingly you inflict pain
that inhibitions fly away;
how, after leading them astray,
can you wish them without stain?
Who does the greater guilt incur
when a passion is misleading?
She who errs and heeds his pleading,
or he who pleads with her to err?
Whose is the greater guilt therein
when either’s conduct may dismay:
she who sins and takes the pay,
or he who pays her for the sin?
Why for sins you’re guilty of,
do you, amazed, your blame debate?
Either love what you create
or else create what you can love.
Were not it better to forbear,
and thus, with finer motivation,
obtain the unforced admiration
of her you plotted to ensnare?
But no, I deem you still will revel
in pour arms and arrogance,
and in promise and persistence
adjoin flesh and world and devil.
Kayum Ahmed: The poet is this incredibly brilliant woman born in the 1650s in Mexico, and is clearly seen to be incredibly gifted at a young age; learns to read, express herself through poetry and philosophy, but cannot attend a university or go to school because she is a woman. And so finds other ways in which she can express herself. She eventually, I know, has several suitors that she turns down and turns to the monastery to become a nun where she engages in further readings and philosophy and poetry and writing and begins to challenge the system of patriarchy that she finds herself in, and this all happens in the 17th century which is just absolutely remarkable to me.
KA: I think there’s definitely something personal for me about the poem, having grown up in a very patriarchal, traditional Muslim family. I was challenged by my mother who was taken out of school at a very young age of the age of 11 by her father because she was a woman. And so my mother was in this household, dominated by my father, three sons – me being the oldest. And I think instilled in me the sense of duality and conflict that she had – on the one hand raising me to be a good Muslim, whatever that means. And on the other hand, rebelling against the system of patriarchy, that’s inherent within traditional Islam.
KA: So I think about this, this strong, incredibly intelligent, a woman who is denied the opportunity to seek formal education, but uses her skills and talents to continue to challenge the system that has put her in this particular position. I see some, some resonance with my mother’s situation. She’s a successful business woman, someone who doesn’t have any formal education but insisted for instance, that I go to school and that I study. And I think if she had been given the same chances and opportunities I had been given, I think it would have been a very different mother that I have today. She was 19 when she had me. When I read this poem for the first time, there was something that moved me or compelled me to think about her quite a lot.
AA: ‘A Philosophical Satire’ by 17th century Mexican nun, Juana Inés de La Cruz, introduced to us by South African human rights lawyer Kayum Ahmed.
AA: Okay that’s all from this fifth episode of Strength and Solidarity. A reminder that our new website is up, and with it, our podcast page, where you can find transcripts and suggestions for further reading on the topics we’re covering. And we’d love your feedback. Wherever you accessed us, you’ll find a link to tell us how we’re doing or make a suggestion, And please add us to your podcast library and give us a rating. And of course, join us again. A shout out to our wonderful producer, Peter Coccoma, I’m Akwe Amosu – see you next time.