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Glacier, you grew up in Hong Kong, in a capitalist, freedom-loving, democratic environment. When did you first feel that something is wrong or not working as it should?
I grew up in Hong Kong when it was still really free. I was taught to think critically, I was taught to say whatever I saw fit, and to speak up when I see things that were problematic. I started to notice something was wrong in 2012, because the Hong Kong government was proposing a copyright amendment bill, which would hinder free speech on the internet – for example using memes, which is one of the most common ways Hongkongers at the time used to express their political opinions. Memes are usually hilarious – it’s how I got to understand politics better. With a few people at the NGO Keyboard Frontline, we were lobbying against that bill. And we succeeded, the government took it back. That was the first success I ever had in policy advocacy. We found out, we can make a difference. I was super hopeful at that time.
Two years later, in 2014, there were mass protests on the streets of Hong Kong. You participated by making YouTube videos.
Yeah, I was the one crying for help and asking everybody to please help Hong Kong, and to please do something (laughs). That idea came very randomly to me, because at the time, there was this Ukrainian girl filming in a similar way during the Maidan Revolution. On the 28th of September, 2014, I was confronted with tear gas the first time, and that gave me such a shock – I felt like I cannot trust the system anymore. Then, a friend said, don’t you think someone should know about this? Maybe we can film something, like this video from Ukraine. And I just said, yeah, sure, without thinking what it actually means.
The demonstrations, also the bigger ones in 2019 and 2020, were organized by very young Hongkongers, mostly teenagers. You were the first ones to tear down the surveillance lampposts and to fight surveillance state authoritarianism, and also artificial intelligence, which we can be used by an authoritarian government against people.
Hong Kong is the frontline of that conflict between the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the free world. We hoped that the world would wake up and see that the CCP is not the obedient player it promised to be. China is implementing really harsh surveillance on Hongkongers, on Chinese, on Tibetans, on Uyghurs. And at the same time, it is exporting its surveillance technology to Africa to implement there. Let’s not forget that a lot of companies like Germany’s Siemens or Spain’s Telefonica have helped Chinese companies and the Chinese government to build this sort of surveillance technology, so that they can use it, test it out and later export it to other countries. And there are other implications. In the current European Union legal system, data of individuals can actually be transferred to China. With so many users of TikTok, WeChat, and other Chinese-made apps, the data is legally transferred to China. And under the Chinese data protection law, every service provider has to turn over data to the government, if they ask for it. Basically, European data is feeding into the Chinese surveillance system for analysis as well.
Recently, I tried to buy affordable furniture that was not made in China. It was quite difficult. How do you deal with the dominance of China in so many markets? Do you avoid stuff that is made under the control of the CCP?
I really love shopping, but many purchases are not really necessary. Often, there are other options like buying secondhand, supporting local businesses and small shops instead of fast fashion chains, for example. That will decrease the demand for certain things. I feel like it is a problem of the whole consumer culture that products do not last long, so that you quickly buy another one. During the pandemic, many of the face masks we were using originated from China – a lot of them were made from slave labor, people are not aware of that. We have to work on our supply chains and hold China to account for all the human-rights violations, especially in the Xinjiang region.
Most people do not hesitate to use Chinese products. Western kids today grow up browsing TikTok-streams without any reflection regarding the influence of the CCP – or the addictiveness of the app.
The problem with TikTok is that the content moderation rules cause the deletion of so-called sensitive content. For example, if you publish a video related to the Ukraine war, it means that it is going to be removed from TikTok. The reason why I find American technology a bit more trustworthy – even though they still spy on you – is that at least they are made by private companies. But in China, every private entity is connected to the CCP. By law, they have to turn over everything they have about every individual. I find that highly problematic.
Some people describe the CCP as almost omnipotent. Others say, it’s going to collapse in two years. What do you think?
I am quite confident it will have to change in the future. Maybe not in the coming five years. But modern history taught me that dictatorships usually fall – they cannot control everybody forever. And I am hoping that the CCP will end before I die. So I am doing whatever I can to try to facilitate meaningful change that will lead to that.
Do you fear that – one day, in a dystopian future – the communist party rules the whole world or controls it with AI surveillance?
There will always be people who are trying to use their creativity to try to fight back – even if surveillance is everywhere. There are activists working underground, people trying to circumvent the censorship, people trying to organize protests – even though it does not get picked up by the media.
What are Western politicians doing?
The European Union is now thinking about harmonizing AI laws. But many politicians do not necessarily know what AI is. China is eager to participate in all the rules-setting for current and future 5G or AI systems, it is very active in different international bodies trying to set standards, and make them tailored or more favorable to Chinese preferences. We have to stop them. When the CCP is making our laws, we will definitely be living like in George Orwells «1984».
You are kind of an enemy of the state of CCP-ruled China. What has the party done to your life?
How the party has infiltrated my life has given me a lot of fear – the fear of uncertainty and the fear of dragging other people into this chaos. In 2020, I was helping someone in Hong Kong to run her election. The security law had already passed at the time, and our team was sitting down trying to figure out what we can say and what we cannot. I was shocked, I could not believe we were doing this. It was like self-censorship for the sake of winning an election. And as I left Hong Kong afterwards, when I was in Germany and other places, I started to double-think what I say, because I fear to draw other people into trouble. For example, if I talk about my colleagues who are in jail – would I give them trouble? Or when I am on social media and hanging out with my friends who are not activists – if they tagged me, would that bring them problems? This kind of fear and the potential to self-censorship is basically where the CCP has the biggest impact.
You cannot live in your homeland anymore.
Yes, I’m living in self-imposed exile. I can never go back. Contacting people back home means exposing them to risk, even if we are using very secure communication channels like Signal – if they got stopped on the streets by police and are forced to hand out their phone. When it comes to the safety of other people, I think, it is better to be safe than sorry.
You live in Hamburg now. May I ask what your legal status in Germany is? Are you recognized refugee?
I’m on student visa, studying data protection at the University of Hamburg,
How is it going?
I’m in my second year as a postgraduate. And like every PhD student, I procrastinate quite a lot (laughs). I think I wrote one third of my first draft. Hopefully I will finish it in two years.
How do you like living in Germany?
All in all, I am still adjusting to the cultural shock. In general, things are so different. I struggle a lot when it comes to trying to receive mail in Germany – DHL is not very reliable. I also struggle with German websites: The university does have an online portal. I thought it would be like the university I went to in Hong Kong, that everything is on that portal. But no, you have to go to this office and that office, and then to another two offices. Why is this? I thought we could settle everything online. Also, I thought Deutsche Bahn would be more on time, I really have to say this. Travelling by train is the worst experience.
You write a column for «Welt am Sonntag». In one issue, «Rote Linien in Deutschland», you wrote about self-censorship in Germany.
Germany is free, technically. But a lot of German officials are very careful and reluctant when they refer to Taiwan, for example. They don’t want to be seen as xenophobic or as hawkish anti-China.
How do you perceive your fellow German students?
I do not go to the campus that much, because I do not have an office or classes to attend. But of course, I have had discussions. Some people I have encountered in occasions in Berlin were calling me extreme right, a Hong Kong nationalist and an Anti-China racist – for emphasizing my identity as a Hongkonger. They kept asking me if I am considered left or right in Hong Kong. But our political spectrum is not dependent on being left or right, it is dependent on how close you are with the CCP. You are either Pro Beijing, or you are Pro democracy. I do not know if I am left or right, I never thought about that. In Germany, however, that is still very much relevant. Maybe because of the 68 movement that kind of mindset just stayed with them. They get stuck in these conversations a lot, and in the end, someone like me gets accused being a racist. How can you be racist when you are just fighting for your fundamental rights? It does not make any sense.
For the future, what are your main political goals?
People need to understand that their choices matter. As a person, you decide what kind of stuff you buy. And which politicians you vote for. They are the ones who are deciding on all the policies you have to live under.
I am always the unpopular person at the dinner table, who will ask you, if you have read the news about China or Hong Kong. I was told I am not supposed to talk about politics or religion on the dinner table. But I am still going to do it. For myself, I think I will focus on writing my PhD and on working on policy advocacy. I am currently working as the Hong Kong campaigns coordinator for the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (@ipacglobal) – a platform that gathers politicians focusing on China. So I get the chance to talk to them, to get to know them, to build relationships. Together, we try to facilitate campaigns and laws that will help us to hold China to account – I am really interested in policymaking.
In general, you still seem to have confidence in the reform of governments and the international organizations. Unlike many libertarians, who focus on building solutions without governments, for example Bitcoin or Free Private Cities.
To be honest, I am very disappointed and angry about the international organizations myself. I sometimes feel like they failed us. They promised to uphold the rule-based world order. But look at Hong Kong, look at Ukraine, look at all the humanitarian crises, it is kind of all over the world. They have not done anything, as they promised, in my point of view, and it makes me absolutely furious. At the same time, even when there is decentralization happening on all levels in different sectors of the world, states remain key players in the world. We cannot get rid of borders, not now, not anytime soon. So, we still have to rely on them as institutions to work with and to address those problems. However frustrated or angry I am, I have to work with them.
This name of yours, Glacier, is it your invention?
No, it is my common nickname. I used to do ice skating when I was younger, and then that is what my friends call me. So that became my common nickname. But Chung Ching Kwong 鄺頌晴 is my legal name.