If you can't take to the streets to protest against restrictions on freedom of expression, then at least bring attention to them. This was the goal of the political section of the 2020 Frankfurt Book Fair, which wrapped up Sunday, October 18.
One sub-theme labelled "For the Word and for Freedom" focused on the ongoing struggle for democracy in Hong Kong. Among the forums at the side-event was a discussion between philosopher and publicist Michel Friedman and Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong.
Even without the COVID-19 pandemic, Wong would not have been able to travel to Frankfurt to attend the fair. The prominent democracy activist, who was temporarily detained in September, is currently not allowed to leave Hong Kong and faces a court hearing on November 3.
"He is one of those people who are persecuted for saying what they think," said Friedman while introducing the young activist. The 24-year-old, who has been organizing protests since he was a teenager, has been arrested ten times, jailed three times, and is currently facing a fourth prison sentence.
"Since the national security law was implemented in Hong Kong, the situation has turned into a nightmare," says Wong. But although he faces further jail time, it hasn't prevented him for continuing to speak out against the ongoing crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong.
In the last two months, for instance, many activists have been arrested in secret and denied the ability to contact a lawyer or their families, Wong said. "Some were taken to China. We suspect that they are being tortured," he added.
New security law behind crackdown
The number of Hong Kong citizens arrested for taking part in protests is extremely high at one in 700 individuals. "Since the summer, more than 10,000 people have been arrested in Hong Kong, a city of seven million people. 2,000 of us have been charged, and over a hundred have actually been sent to prison," Wong explained.
The youngest person arrested was an 11-year-old student; the oldest was 84 years old. Wong himself has been under constant surveillance since July, saying he is followed by up to three cars at a time.
The new national security law imposed by China with its draconian measures has been in force in Hong Kong since June 30. Its purpose is to suppress freedom of expression and demonstrations. Wong says Hong Kong has already abandoned the maxim of 'one country, two systems'.
"The transition to 'one country, one system' has already been completed," he said.
Information is also currently being censored. His own writings, for example, has been removed from the shelves of public libraries under the pretext that they must be examined for possible violations of the law. Time and again, controversial publications are threatened with legal action. One teacher was dismissed for criticizing the government.
Despite ongoing "intimidation and oppression through fear," Wong insists that the voice of the pro-democracy movement must continue to be heard. "If we fall silent, we are no longer free. Therefore, we must act now," he said.
With the coronavirus pandemic also making it impossible to hold mass street demonstrations, more than one million Hong Kong citizens have moved the protest to the internet. Online, people play the popular game "Animal Crossing" as a virtual protest — the game is banned in mainland China. The sharing of information online is also a powerful means to counter government propaganda.
Wong says protesting has also become part of everyday life, even among people who are not usually on the front lines of the pro-democracy fight.
"People protest pro-Beijing restaurants ... and people go to court hearings to support the activists facing trial right now," he said. "I think this kind of momentum gives so much empowerment to the public which may not be able to serve on the forefront of the protests."
Appeal to the international community
Wong wants the global community to speak out against Beijing's crackdown on the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. He says it must be widely understood that today's China is no longer the China of the 2008 Olympic Games.
Under hardline president Xi Jinping, it is clear how the People's Republic intends to assert its claims on Hong Kong, he believes.
"Yesterday Xinjiang, today Hong Kong, tomorrow Taiwan," said Wong. "The preservation of democracy in Hong Kong and Taiwan and democratic reforms in China would only be possible with international support."
Joshua Wong's book Unfree Speech: The Threat to Global Democracy and Why We Must Act Now is available in English by Penguin.
This article was translated from the German original by Sarah Hucal.