Joshua Wong is the secretary general and co-founder of Demosisto, a political party in Hong Kong.
The Lantos Human Rights Prize is intended to serve as a beacon of hope, justice and human decency in a world too often covered in a shroud of darkness. Named after the late U.S. congressman Tom Lantos, who co-founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus in 1983, it aspires to honor those who uphold human rights as a global priority, including towering figures such as the Dalai Lama and Elie Wiesel. For that reason, I am deeply honored to be given the award this year.
Yet I can’t help but feel that Lantos would be saddened to see the dire situation facing Hong Kong in the aftermath of the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in which I and so many others participated.
Hong Kong has always been a symbol of the vibrant and free exchange of cultures, commerce and ideas. This reputation is threatened, however, in the face of China’s efforts to increase its authoritarian control within its sphere of influence. In the past two years alone, democratically elected legislators, including my friend and colleague Nathan Law, have been removed from office. Other fellow activists, including Agnes Chow, a member of Demosisto, our youth political group, have been barred from appearing on the ballot for having political positions that Beijing deems unacceptable. Political prosecutions against protesters have become the new norm. Edward Leung, a fellow activist, is serving a six-year prison term as I write this.
Historically, Hong Kong has served as an important bridge between China and the world. Our freedoms, stability and the rule of law have been the reasons for our success. But now Hong Kong finds itself on the front line against Chinese imperialism in the 21st century. From undermining our liberal institutions, such as media freedom, to meddling in free elections, Beijing is actively deploying its sharp power against Hong Kong. All this constitutes a grave threat to our democracy.
China’s goal is to create a new international order governed not by shared values of human rights, but by the force of its economic might. We see this in Xinjiang, Tibet, Macau, Taiwan and the South China Sea. But even larger and mightier nations such as the United States must contend with the threats posed by the new Chinese imperialism — and they are doing so from a morally weakened position if they set aside cherished and lasting values, including human rights and democracy, in favor of fleeting economic gains. Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong must be viewed against the larger backdrop of its aggressive actions in many places, and seen as a worrisome foreshadowing of things to come.
This year’s Group of 20 summit begins today in Buenos Aires. The occasion presents an excellent opportunity to speak up against the issues above, given that the summit’s agenda priorities include infrastructure for development. It is precisely under the guise of international development that China is seeking to advance its new world order — one in which democracy is sidelined, partner nations are saddled with unsustainable debt, and human rights are devalued. I urge leaders in the U.S. government to face the multifaceted challenges that China poses head-on. In doing so, I urge them to lead with their strengths — namely, the democratic and rights-based values that continue to inspire people around the world, including in my home of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong might be a small place, but its people make it unique. The iconic images of skyscrapers in this bustling metropolis are famous around the world, but it is the people of Hong Kong, standing up for their city on the streets, who make it truly great. There is no doubt in my mind that the only path forward for us is self-determination, a fundamental human right to which all people in the world are entitled. All peoples must have a voice in their future.