Joshua Wong is the secretary general and a co-founder of Demosisto, a political party in Hong Kong. Johnson Ching-Yin Yeung is a human rights activist in Hong Kong, a fellow at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and former Hurford youth fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
As you read this, one of us, Joshua Wong, has been locked away by the Hong Kong government. Along with two other young Umbrella Movement leaders, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, he has been sentenced to prison for leading peaceful demonstrations in 2014. This marks the height of the Hong Kong government’s persecution of young dissidents who bravely stood up against authoritarianism and is a direct hit on this generation’s ideal of a fair, democratic and just society.
Last year, the three Umbrella leaders were convicted by the court for their roles in the protest movement and sentenced to lighter penalties, ranging from community service to a suspended sentence. They duly fulfilled their obligations. However, Hong Kong’s Department of Justice was unsatisfied and appealed for a review of the sentences. It took similar action against another group of 13 young activists, who attempted to storm the Legislative Council Complex to protest a controversial development scheme. These young activists are in their 20s and should be enjoying their freedom and fulfilling their potential. Instead, they are held behind bars and labeled as “criminals inciting violence.”
This crackdown has a disturbing effect on the morale of the city’s youths. In a news conference, one of those sentenced, Law, burst into tears and said, “The court said there is a need to hand down a deterrent sentence against radical actions, but do they know what they have deterred is a whole generation of young people who are enthusiastic for a better future and strive for social change?”
In other democracies, it is common to promote youth participation in public office. This is not the case in Hong Kong, despite the fact that the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has said she prioritizes building a relationship with youths. When young people formed the political party Demosisto and won a seat in the Legislative Council, the Chinese government reinterpreted the Basic Law to have the candidate disqualified. Now, the three activists have been sentenced to periods of more than three months in prison, barring them from running for political office for the next five years. Beijing and its supporters in Hong Kong are effectively shutting down youth participation in politics and cracking down on those who demand Hong Kong’s self-determination and autonomy.
The sentences not only discourage young activists from participating in politics but also demoralize the entire generation and could eventually intensify the brain drain in Hong Kong. According to a 2016 survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 57 percent of Hong Kong residents between 18 and 30 say they would leave Hong Kong if they had the chance. While not every single one has the capacity to immigrate, a lot of them might choose to distance themselves from political affairs.
We have already observed how the city’s youths have moved away from idealism and politics, reflected in their choice of college majors and their preference for jobs. Hong Kong not only is losing talent through immigration but also is losing a new generation of leaders in public-service sectors such as journalism, academia and public litigation. This poses a serious threat to the democratic foundation of Hong Kong.
Rather than encourage idealistic youth leaders, the government rewards young opportunists who kowtow to authority. For instance, when Carrie Lam came into office, she rewarded young loyalists by appointing them as undersecretaries and political assistants in various government bureaus. These appointees, however, are incompetent and lack popular support. Some even ran as pro-establishment candidates in previous District Council elections but were defeated in a landslide.
Hong Kong became a global city because it is a hub of talents, but these talents can be nurtured only in an open, democratic and free society. When journalists become frustrated and stop reporting, it becomes harder to investigate corruption or discover fraud in the financial market. When young scholars have to fight to gain basic academic freedom, they have less time to conduct their research and solve real social problems. When incompetent opportunists are rewarded for their loyalty instead of their merit, it will only drive brilliant minds away from the administration and result in even poorer governance. Degradation of the rule of law and governance in Hong Kong will eventually affect foreign investments and the city’s economy.
We are bonded with this city, we are not giving up and we believe in the people of Hong Kong. Some of us have lost our freedom temporarily, but our work will carry on — and we ask that the international community support us. Hong Kong needs resources and expertise to create alternative, independent institutions working on community organizing, journalism, research, human rights monitoring and civic and community legal education. These are the institutions that can absorb frustrated young talents, revitalize them and integrate them into the democratic movement. Young activists need to connect with other civil societies, share best practices and experiences, and apply new strategies and techniques to strengthen our civil society.
We have faith that when the young political prisoners reclaim their freedom, Hong Kong society will be stronger than ever.