Hong Kong was a city in turmoil for the last half of 2019. On June 9, approximately one million people marched in the streets. The next weekend, it was two million, about a quarter of the city’s population. Protests continued for the rest of the year, growing in intensity as demonstrators and police clashed in the streets: tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets became part of life in Hong Kong.
The protests started in response to an extradition bill proposed by Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, and backed by the Chinese government in Beijing. If enacted, the bill would allow anyone accused of a crime to be extradited to the Chinese mainland to face trial.
The bill may have sparked the unrest but the conflict has its roots in the end of British colonial rule and the handover of Hong Kong to the Chinese in 1997. The city is governed by the “one country, two systems” principle which mandates that citizens of Hong Kong enjoy liberties such as freedom of speech and an independent judiciary which are unavailable in mainland China However, the system is only guaranteed for 50 years and Hong Kongers, especially the younger generation, have become increasingly apprehensive about how their lives will change under rule from Beijing.
It is that generation, many in the teens and early 20s, who led the protests. Their movement was largely decentralized and, for the first time, women took their place on the frontlines, joining a global trend seen in countries including India and Sudan. And while the movement was generally leaderless and many of the protestors remained anonymous behind masks and umbrellas, one of its most recognizable faces is Denise Ho.
Ho is an icon many times over: a star of Cantopop, a popular Cantonese-language music genre; heroine of the LGBTQ+ community as the first Hong Kong celebrity to come out as lesbian, and a human rights leader for her work as a pro-democracy activist and vocal critic of the Hong Kong and Chinese state. Her activism soon attracted the ire of the Chinese government which banned her music from the mainland and stripped it from Chinese-based music streaming sites. Ho also lost lucrative sponsorships including one for the French cosmetic company Lancôme.
Despite these consequences, fighting for a free Hong Kong was an easy decision for Ho. She told VICE Magazine “In these very critical moments, my choice whether to stand on this or that side is quite clear and obvious to me. Because I don’t think I can really be that kind of so-called celebrity who silences herself and just turns a blind eye to all that’s happening in the society. That is just undoable for me. That sacrifice would be even greater than what I’m experiencing now.”
And so Ho speaks out: making her case at the United Nations and in front of a sold-out audience at the Sydney Opera House. She is always quick to point out that the fight for democracy in Hong Kong isn’t just a fight for one city but rather a cause that affects the entire world. In September, she testified before Congress, saying, “If Hong Kong falls, it would easily become the springboard for the totalitarian regime of China to push its rules and priorities overseas, utilizing its economic powers to conform others to their communists values, just as they have done with Hong Kong in the past 22 years. The U.S. and its allies have everything to fear if they wish to maintain a world that is free, open, and civil.”
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