Hong Kong was once a non-issue in American politics. For decades, the former British colony dutifully served as a semi-autonomous go-between for US and Chinese capital, processing billions of dollars of trade and investment between the countries each year. But over the last 14 months, this meeting ground for global capitalism has transformed into the front lines of a new Cold War. An increasingly confident China has calculated that it no longer needs to honor its long-standing international agreement to grant Hong Kong elections by universal suffrage, and since last summer, it has accelerated its devastating crackdown against pro-democracy Hong Kongers. The United States has responded by ending its recognition of Hong Kong as a separate territory from China and enacting sanctions against officials who have violated Hong Kong protesters’ human rights.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists have been thrust to the center of this conflict. In a break from earlier generations of Hong Kong democrats, who made only half-hearted attempts to speak to American audiences, the current crop of Hong Kong activists—most notably the 23-year-old Joshua Wong and his political party, Demosistō—have aggressively courted lawmakers in Washington and actively shaped US legislation on Hong Kong. Their efforts have so far produced three US laws on Hong Kong—not to mention photo-ops between Wong and China hawks like Senators Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton. In May, Beijing announced a draconian new national security law in Hong Kong, which criminalizes a range of political activity including “foreign collusion,” with a penalty of up to life imprisonment. Anticipating danger, Demosistō disbanded in June. A core member, Agnes Chow, was arrested last month; Wong says he expects to be arrested at any moment.
While supported among many Hong Kong protesters, who see lobbying the United States as a matter of necessity in the struggle against Beijing’s state violence, these efforts strain an already compromised US-China relationship, throwing Hong Kong’s place in the world into further uncertainty. What are the options for Hong Kongers, and what are the consequences? Could Hong Kongers’ well-intentioned pro-democracy activism end up fueling a new Cold War?
Here, I pose these questions to one of Wong’s top strategists and the architect of Hong Kongers’ US lobbying, Jeffrey Ngo. The 24-year-old Hong Kong activist is currently a history PhD student at Georgetown, where he remains out of China’s reach.
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Because the national security law is so new, and the provisions so vague, you never know what comes next. It might be the firing of a professor. It might be the raiding of a pro-democracy newspaper. It might be the arrest of your friend. I’m not endangered personally, but the fear applies because of how much I care about people in Hong Kong.
WC: How has the National Security Law affected your work of lobbying US lawmakers?
JN: The Hong Kong Autonomy Act [signed into law July 14] is exclusively a sanctions bill, and calling for sanctions is illegal according to Hong Kong’s national security law. All of my work on this bill was done before June 30, when the national security law came into effect. I’m not supposed to have violated the law, because there’s no retroactive application. But multiple articles of the law target the activities I have been doing for years prior to that point.
WC: Tell me how you got involved with this work.
JN: I got to know Joshua Wong after the Umbrella Movement, when he came to New York in 2015. I formally joined Demosistō in 2017 because I saw a commitment from them, but most of all from Joshua, to internationalize the Hong Kong struggle and the Hong Kong resistance. I saw that I had a role to play, as a more theoretical person with a research background, to expand these ideas.
WC: What did that commitment to internationalization look like?
JN: During the Umbrella Movement of 2014, there was virtually zero effort by anyone to do this kind of work. And before 2014, most pro-democracy Hong Kongers still sort of believed it was possible under One Country, Two Systems, to achieve democracy. But it was very clear right after the Umbrella Movement, when that failed, that genuine democracy under One Country, Two Systems was not possible. People in Hong Kong civil society were looking for new directions. And among them was to go overseas and look for avenues abroad.
Self-determination was not part of the vocabulary of Hong Kong’s political discourse prior to 2014. I remember this distinctly, the first time I met Joshua Wong in 2015, in person, in New York, he started talking about self-determination.
WC: When he said self-determination, what was he referring to?
JN: We’ve been branded as pro-independence, which is not true. The way Joshua talks about self-determination is in future terms: basically about the importance of Hong Kongers’ deciding Hong Kong’s post-2047 future, since there was no meaningful Hong Konger participation in the process leading up to 1997 [when Hong Kong was handed over from the United Kingdom to China]. The other part is the internationalization of the cause, because you can’t advocate for self-determination but then leave out the global community. You saw that with Catalonia, where you had a referendum that was not internationally recognized and that yielded nothing.
WC: So how have you helped Joshua navigate Washington?
JN: I mean, he’s Joshua Wong, so members of Congress or other political leaders would want to see him, but I’m the one actually arranging the meetings, talking to the staffers, briefing Joshua on what to say. Members of Congress always end with a question: What do you want us to do? In the past, pro-democracy Hong Kongers who have gone to Washington would just say, “Well, keep paying attention to Hong Kong.” Our difference is we tell them exactly what we want: We want the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed. This has been our biggest ask since 2015 through last year when it was finally passed.
WC: The argument for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was it would deter the Chinese Communist Party from further eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy, right? But Beijing has called the US’s bluff by introducing the National Security Law. Can we agree that the Human Rights and Democracy Act failed as a deterrent?
JN: Well, let’s go back a few steps. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was supposed to offer a bunch of new tools that the administration could use to respond to the deteriorating situation in Hong Kong. Whereas the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act [the prior US policy on Hong Kong] was just one nuclear button: It was like, you either continue business as usual, or you terminate everything. The Human Rights and Democracy Act was supposed to be like, well, pick something in between.
What the Trump administration has done is to press that nuclear button anyway. There are provisions in the act that, as far as I know, have not yet been used, but I know they still could be useful, right? Like ensuring no Hong Kong protesters who have been arrested would be denied a US visa.
Now, going to your question. Can we agree that it failed as a deterrent? Yes and no. I think deterring China was part of the thinking behind the bill, but it was never entirely about that. A part of it was we knew worse things were to come. It was to prepare so when those worse things do come, that the US can respond effectively.
WC: I would argue it backfired. Beijing has been accusing Hong Kong protesters of being CIA or State Department–backed for many years without evidence. But 2019 was the first time Hong Kongers successfully lobbied US lawmakers in such an open way, right? It feels like your work actually accelerated China’s decision to enact the National Security Law.
JN: First, I categorically reject the unsubstantiated claims originating from Chinese propaganda that anyone at Demosistō has received CIA training or State Department or NED [National Endowment for Democracy] funding. None of us have any association with those entities.
To your question, I would agree it accelerated. But rather than say that our lobbying the US government is the chief reason for the National Security Law, I would say that the Hong Kong government’s failed attempt to push forward the extradition bill [a proposal that would have exposed Hong Kongers to prosecution under mainland China’s legal system] is actually the chief reason. That’s why 2019 exploded. Then Beijing got scared, and said, “We need this.” So Beijing should always take the blame for escalation in Hong Kong, and escalation with the US, because the extradition bill was totally unnecessary.
WC: I think our recurring disagreement is over the value of involving the United States. Why do you seem to embrace the logic of US-China competition as something that could be helpful for Hong Kong people?
JN: I wouldn’t say my support of US actions regarding Hong Kong stems from wanting to see the US compete with China at this level. My support of US actions is much simpler. It is looking at the world right now, looking at how small Hong Kong is and how big China is, seeing how unequal the power relations are, and then looking at the map and saying, “Well, if we want to be realistic, if we want to be practical, what allies should we seek on the international stage that will help our cause?”
Now, I’m as aware as you are that US foreign policy is imperfect. A good number of Hong Kongers are like me, they are critical of US foreign policy in various places. But I think in order to ensure the survival of Hong Kong in such desperate circumstances, we still want some support by people in Washington, because that’s the only way things will be effective. Behind the scenes, if Xi Jinping is going to listen to a world leader telling him to stop encroaching on Hong Kong, it’s not going to be the prime minister of New Zealand, it’s going to be the president of the United States. This is the geopolitical reality that we have to work with.
WC: One of the arguments Hong Kong leftists make is that we need to be building with folks on the mainland—and that’s who Beijing is really scared of, not Donald Trump.
JN: I think that China is unlikely to listen to their own people unless we are talking about literally a billion people rising up. And that’s not going to happen because we have seen dissidents and human rights lawyers, ethnic and racial minorities, LGBT folks who are treated very badly within China. Arrested, detained, tortured.
On a practical level, how are we going to be able to convince mainlanders to side with us? Joshua always tells this funny example when asked why he’s not building solidarity with Chinese people: “I made a Weibo account, and it was taken down in 30 minutes or so.” So because of the Great Firewall, because of us not being able to enter China, it’s very difficult, if not impossible, to engage with the masses in China.
In the past, the idea of pro-democracy Hong Kongers was that the best way to support democracy in China is to prove democracy could succeed in Hong Kong. But what killed the possibility of genuine democracy under One Country, Two Systems? It was Beijing’s decision in 2014 to say no to democracy in Hong Kong. All of it goes back to the actions perpetrated by the Chinese government.
WC: You’ve always emphasized democracy first. But you would agree that the suppression of Hong Kong’s democracy is integral to the city’s deep economic inequality, that Hong Kongers are refused democracy because it protects the city’s corporate ruling class, right? So why haven’t class critiques played a bigger role in your messaging?
JN: We are not “leftist.” But we on the whole very much embrace progressive values. Yes, the class critique is probably not as strong as you would want it, but we do talk a lot about land use and real estate hegemony; we were looking into how China’s Liaison Office actually owns hundreds of properties in Hong Kong. So even though they are the de facto embassy in Hong Kong, representing a nominally Communist regime, they actually have a much bigger stake than any of us in the housing market, and manipulate the housing market for financial gains. We also talk about pensions, minimum wage. We show up to every pro-LGBT protest.
WC: You also recently became the first mainstream political party in Hong Kong to declare support for Black Lives Matter.
JN: Yes, Black Lives Matter as well. So it is personally hurtful for both Joshua and me to see that meme circulating on Twitter, you know with three figures: the white American police officer kneeling on a Black man. And then Joshua holding a US flag asking the cop to save Hong Kong.
There are certainly reactionary elements in Hong Kong. And there are people who are explicitly anti–Black Lives Matter on the Hong Kong right wing. But we are the ones standing up against those elements within the Hong Kong context. So to say that we are somehow the poster boys of the pro-racist, pro-fascist, pro-imperialist elements of Hong Kong—it’s just blatantly wrong.
WC: Sure. But isn’t the answer pretty obvious? You have the pictures of you shaking hands with Tom Cotton, Marco Rubio—these are villains to the Western left. These are folks who are doing all kinds of harm to people we care about.
JN: I have always welcomed informed and good-faith critiques about the Hong Kong movement’s relationship with the US foreign policy consensus. But I think that critique would include acknowledgement that we actually go out of our way to be bipartisan, that we’ve met with Ed Markey, one of the most progressive senators. We’ve met with Jim McGovern from Massachusetts, Ro Khanna from California, and more centrist Democrats like Nancy Pelosi.
If someone’s argument is that the entire Washington establishment is imperialist and so being bipartisan also means being pro-US imperialism—if that’s their argument, I would be happy to engage. But if they’re trying to selectively handpick certain photos and brand us as being pro- one faction in the US rather than being bipartisan, then I would consider those smear campaigns more than what you and I have right now, which is a conversation.
WC: Well, I would like to explore your views on that. What are your views toward the US?
JN: I’m reluctant to talk about the US as a whole; I neither embrace US foreign policy or reject it. Given my background as a student of history—I researched the Vietnam War—I think I have a more nuanced understanding of US foreign policy than most Hong Kongers. And it goes back to something I talked about earlier: I see trying to win over the support of certain political leaders in Washington as a necessity.
I’ve been in the same room with these people. I look at their faces. I’ve spoken to them; I’ve shaken their hands. I observe up close their emotional investment in China and in Hong Kong, and I think I can judge who actually cares and who doesn’t. I work within the system, and I identify people who I think I can work with. And my rule is that I only work with them if I can sense that they’re not just using Hong Kong as a chip.
WC: But having studied the Vietnam War, you’ve seen what US foreign policy can do, the misery that it inflicts. How can you kind of wave away the possible consequences of US foreign policy as a whole, by citing these emotional interactions with members?
JN: First of all, I don’t see the US going to war with China or with anyone over Hong Kong. Yes, US foreign policy, at best, has had mixed success in the past. But while recognizing there have been flaws, I still believe in the possibility of the US being a force of good.
Broadly speaking there are two schools of thought among historians. There are historians who think about US foreign policy more structurally, and then there are other people who see contingencies, who see individuals as being able to make a difference throughout history. I subscribe to the latter vision, as a general rule. I think that working with the right people, having the right people in charge, and trying to chart the course of US foreign policy, as an individual with limited power, I would still be able to help make a difference. I’m not a defeatist.
WC: I’m not convinced by the idea the US is doing anything beneficial for Hong Kong. You see the US as potentially a force for good. But what does that look like? What is the best-case scenario for you?
JN: Well, to give you a more concrete example: the Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act is something that I’m actively pushing right now. It’s a pro-immigration bill, which is why it’s gaining a heck of lot more Democratic support right now than Republicans. It would offer Hong Kongers a political refuge in the US. Now of course, then the critique from the left is, why is it just Hong Kong and not about other places suffering from political instability as well?
WC: You’re pointing here to one policy action which I agree is a good thing for Hong Kongers and not, on its face, a kind of imperialistic policy. But it’s very hard to see the US as being a force for good when you look at the bigger picture, and you see Hong Kong being used by the US as a centerpiece in this broader escalation of geopolitical conflict. So is that just something that you just don’t feel responsible for?
JN: There are things that all activists must recognize as a precondition to their work. And for me that precondition is that escalating US-China relations began a decade ago and became far more obvious under Trump. I’m not trying to change US-China policy one way or the other. I’m trying to help Hong Kong, given that I have limited power.
There are so many pieces of the puzzle. Hong Kong is one piece. And within that piece I think we are able to make some difference. But let’s say I stop doing everything that I’m doing right now, I think what’s going to happen is that Hong Kongers get less support. But the US-China trajectory as a whole would not be altered.
WC: I see this as a question of: The world is splitting apart and Hong Kong is caught in between. I’m worried to see you and Demosistō going all in on the US and saying, “This is our best hope.” Because once you go in, you can’t really come back out.
JN: I’m not picking a side between the US government and the Chinese government, but something broader: values. While I recognize the disturbing history that the US is founded on, I think the US—very, very slowly but still throughout history—has made a lot of progress.
I’ve had arguments with some of the radical, theoretical Hong Kong nationalists who want to build a Hong Kong nation. I talk to them and I say, “You shouldn’t fight nationalism with nationalism. You should not fight Chinese nationalism by creating a Hong Kong nation on the side of the US nation.” My point to them is that Hong Kong being an independent nation is not the most important thing. The most important thing is to imagine a transnational role that Hong Kong can play in the international system that actually stands for something.
For me, it would be much more meaningful to talk about values. Such as, say, the embrace of racial diversity. Embracing racial diversity would necessarily make Hong Kong different from China, because China is intolerant of racial minorities. So as a result of these differences, eventually, a different nation might emerge.
My current doctoral dissertation project examines how Hong Kong was the first destination for refugees fleeing Vietnam. So even though most refugees didn’t end up staying in Hong Kong, and British colonial policy with regard to refugees was at times horrible, Hong Kong still had the identity in the ’70s and ’80s as a place where we processed and facilitated the globalization of the Vietnamese diaspora. So it’s about things like that. What can Hong Kong meaningfully represent in the world?
Which goes back to whether I’m picking a side between the US and China. And I would say I’m not. But when I think about what values Hong Kong should represent, these values are far more likely to flourish in a country like America than they are in China.
WC: I actually agree with what you said about not emphasizing Hong Kong nationhood. I think our real difference is that you read Hong Kong’s history as an affirmation of the liberal order, broadly speaking. Whereas I read the same history and see Hong Kong as a site of insurgent potential against this liberal order. And we’re talking about different facets of the liberal order: You’re talking about the progressive elements of it. I’m talking about the contradictions in it that cause all sorts of exploitation and violence.
JN: I don’t think we are necessarily trying to use Hong Kong to endorse the present order. I just think that if the choice is between a new order imposed by China, and the present, flawed order led by the US, if you are pushed to the corner, our values are more similar to the present order.
But your point is that the old order sucks, and China’s new order also sucks, so let’s have a new thing. And I’m as open as you are to building that, and to use Hong Kong to build that. But then it gets back to our age-old disagreement, which is that I work within the geopolitical reality. And the choice is not yet between an old, US-led order and an unknown future, because that choice is one that ignores the everyday threat of China. The current choice that we have is rejecting the China-led order first. Once we are successful at that, I’ll be as happy as you are to explore something new.
WC: I don’t know if we’re ever going to get to something new, if things keep going the way they are. And that’s my bigger concern.
JN: Right. I worry too. It’s a contest to outlive the Chinese Communist Party.