Johnson is a restless ambassador. Passionately but wisely, he fights as a human rights activist against the dying of democracy in his hometown. He feels burdened by conflicts with his pro-Chinese father and by his friends’ imprisonment for activism, but his fighting spirit is undiminished.
Johnson. We always call him the restless ambassador. We do not know him very well yet, but he seems like a loving and hard-working man. He is eager to take us through two weeks of his life in Hong Kong. We soon realise that we usually have to slow him down because he would like to explain the whole world to us.
Johnson is 28 years old, a human rights activist and a board member of Amnesty International in Hong Kong. Before he introduced himself, we asked him what he thinks and feels about the Umbrella MovementThe Umbrella Movement took place in Hong Kong from September to mid-December 2014. The movement was triggered by a decision of the Chinese People’s Congress to select the candidates for the Hong Kong administrative chief post through a preliminary selection process. The movement got its name because the protesters used umbrellas to protect themselves from the tear gas used by the police.. Today is the 28th of September and the sixth anniversary of the movement.
Police violence is an important topic to Johnson. He wants to protest peacefully, without violence. But that doesn’t seem possible in a city in a state of emergency.
But besides his anger towards the police, the feelings of guilt towards the arrested, and the fear of being arrested, one feeling is particularly present. When he talks about it, his eyes shine and a proud smile spreads across his face.
Today, Johnson is having dinner with a friend. They are going to a Japanese restaurant. The conversation causes him to take action.
The friend I had dinner with is an activist who concern prisoners wellbeing. She and her team produce newsletters and sent these to activists who are in prison. The team is called “kill time factory”. She encourages me to do something I should have done weeks ago
That’s sounds super interesting! What do you want to do?
I want to write a letter to my friend who is in jail because of the protests. What am I supposed to tell my friend? That I get to enjoy movies, good food and worry about those little things in my daily life? It feels like a big irony to tell someone in jail that I am worried about those normal things. But I have an idea how to solve this
She told me to share the little things with the prisoners which will set them free beyond bars. I even cried at the dinner table. There is a word for my reaction, it is called bystander guilt
Do you feel guilty because you’re not in prison? Do you feel like you haven’t done enough?
Yes, I feel guilty because my friends suffer and I am still free
But you are already doing so much
Compared to someone who sacrifices his freedom, my contribution seems small
Johnson takes an incidental photo on the way to the restaurant. It shows how the conflict within the population is also leaving its marks on the cityscape: this graffiti once demanded the freedom of Hong Kong. The state often paints them over, burns them away, or removes them.
Johnson has no plans today. We are taking this opportunity to get to know him better.
I am going to show you the life of a Hong Konger in the new authoritarian “normal”.
Johnson has a breakfast ritual. Every morning there is coffee and cereal. The very special luxury? Coffee from Panama. He celebrates the preparation and takes a lot of time for it.
Johnson enjoys working in his office and brewing good coffee here, too. Whatever we expected behind the brown wooden door, we were wrong. Check out Johnson’s office yourself.
Hey, how did your day go?
Worrying about the world ?
Oh no, why? And what did you do today?
I worked, I had a little adventure to an old building. Then at night I encountered riot police again on the street who was searching and filming people on the street
Oh wow. Did they find something?
So far no one was arrested today. We got the news about the 12 Hong Kong people who are detained on mainland China. For months their lawyers couldn’t reach them, the Chinese government is urging to formally press charges. In moments like this I feel demoralized. Chinese judicial system is an uncharted territory to most Hongkongers and it seems so hard for us to do anything to improve the situation of these activists
The 12 people were arrested on the 23rd of August after trying to flee to Taiwan by boat. According to the coordinates published by the Chinese Coast Guard, the speedboat was confiscated in the South China Sea, about 70 kilometres south-east of the city.
It is still not clear whether the detainees will be sent back to Hong Kong or be charged in mainland China. The 12 people are reportedly still in police custody.
Johnson enjoys wandering around the old parts of Hong Kong. He visits abandoned buildings, climbs on their rooftops, and observes the city from above. When he strolls through the streets of the city, he feels grounded. Hong Kong is his home.
It’s our fourth day with Johnson, and today will be his busiest. We can’t imagine how he can squeeze a wedding, a protest, and a family reunion into one day. But Johnson is making it possible. To respect the bridal couple’s privacy, Johnson is not filming them and the celebrations. Nevertheless, he tries to take us with him, shows us the cake and explains Hong Kong wedding traditions.
Today is the National DayThe People’s Republic of China was founded on October 1, 1949. Since then this date is considered a national holiday. and people are protesting to set an example against China. Last year, too, there were several demonstrations; in one, an 18-year-old demonstrator was shot dead by a policeman.
It’s packed with police!
Hey, are you at the protests now?
Yes, I am
What is it like?
I just got searched by the police. It’s packed with police! And protestors are wandering around, no slogan was chanted, people stay put
How does it feel to get searched? I never experienced that in my life.
It felt like being bullied. Four officers in full gear surrounded me and treated me like a criminal. Then one of them used a camera to record the search, and I had to take off my mask so they can film my face.
Which was the worst search you experienced so far?
Last year I was searched by a squad of riot police. I was forced to squat down and raise my arms. When my bag was searched I demanded identification from the police, but all I got was yelling.
Which protest were you at?
It was 1st September last year I think, people were protesting outside the US embassy. The police found a folder written with “law faculty”, and they said sarcastically “Yeah I know you are familiar with law, cockroach.”
They called you cockroach?
Did you ever get beaten?
Yes, that’s how police call protestors nowadays. I was punched and kicked by the police during arrest in July last year, but that’s not serious compared to other cases
But still. How do you deal with such aggressions? I mean, being yelled at is a kind of violence…
Depends on the risk I want to take. If I was ready to get arrested I would argue and talk back. If I didn’t want to get arrest, like yesterday when wanted to attend the family dinner, then I would stay silent
I prepared myself mentally before going to a protest, I acted it out in my head.
Immediately after the protests, Johnson went to his family. He meets his family very regularly, even though the relationship is strained. Johnson’s father is pro-China and cannot understand the way his son thinks and feels about Hong Kong.
This often leads to discussions. Johnson repeatedly tries to raise his father’s awareness of the situation in Hong Kong, but he is not successful. This makes it even more important for Johnson to be financially independent. He does not want his father to blackmail or pressure him. He still enjoys spending time with his family, though, especially when there is good food.
How was your day? I guess you must be super tired now?
Indeed super tired. I’m on my bus ride home. I am thinking about all the people in jail who couldn’t be with their family today
We have often asked ourselves how Johnson always gets everything under one roof and always seems so balanced. He revealed his secret to us.
In the evening, Johnson sends us wonderful snapshots of Hong Kong harbour. The sun is setting and everything seems peaceful for a moment.
Johnson writes a letter to his friend Leo, who is in prison. He has been meaning to do that for a long time, but just didn’t know what to say. After all, he is still free himself and continues to live his everyday life. But a friend has made it clear to him that Leo will be happy about any letter.
Leo was arrested for possession of weapons at a protest in October 2019 and sentenced to four months in prison.
Before Leo went to prison, his friends threw him a farewell party. This has become normal for Johnson. Activists who go to prison meet with their friends to spend some nice last hours with them.
“The atmosphere was calm. It had been a long time for us to have a relaxing night since the protests began. We had good sake, good whiskey and we made fun of each other, like in the old times. And we knew Leo would be in jail for in maximum six to eight months. So the gathering didn’t feel like a real farewell. It was more like a temporary “a friend is going to have a working holiday or go to another country for studies” kind of farewell. Nevertheless, the imprisonment of Leo has hurt our group a lot and we miss him.”
I am and will be in danger.
How does it feel to live in a society that is slowly being deprived of its freedom? For Johnson, it is an insidious process.
While we always think things could be dramatic and epic, they aren’t. There are no checkpoints on the street, and you wouldn’t notice secret police marching on the street, watching over people. Rather, restrictions of freedom, and self-censorship occur subtly, often intangible and invisible. One occasion I felt this unfree status was last night during my talk at the international hack-congress, when one of the participants asked me how the international community can help Hong Kong. And when I was about to say: “sanctions”, I hesitated for a second; for “inviting foreign sanction” has become a serious crime under the National Security Law. That’s what self-censorship feels like – a moment of hesitation, an intuitive risk calculation.
So it’s a kind of mind game? Does it keep you from saying things you want to say?
So far I still say what I want to say, as an act of resistance, but I have seen how this mind game silences people.
Do you think you are in danger?
If I continue what I am doing, like international advocacy, yes I am and will be in danger.
The activists are under great mental pressure. Johnson tells us that he sometimes wakes up in panic at night, even because of quiet sounds. The fear of being arrested by the police is always present.
Sometimes relatives from China call Johnson’s parents and ask what their son is up to in Hong Kong. There are also very creative attempts to intimidate him, which Johnson can only laugh about.
Nevertheless, there is only one reason for Johnson to leave Hong Kong: torture. The Chinese use brutal methods of torture, such as what is called the “tiger chair”, an iron chair on which prisoners sometimes have to sit for several days.
The relationship between Johnson and his father is tense. His father is pro-China and does not understand his son’s commitment. If it were up to his father, Johnson would earn a good salary as a policeman and celebrate the Chinese bank holidayThe People’s Republic of China was founded on October 1, 1949. Since then this date is considered a national holiday.. That often leads to arguments. Nevertheless, Johnson has to laugh when he talks about it.
“So let’s talk about my father first. He is the kind of person who thinks that all people should work in nine-to-five jobs. And if you don’t that means your job is unstable and informal. And every time, I’m like, “what world are you living in, the Stone Age or what?” Anyway, so he doesn’t really understand what I do. The indicator he uses to value a job or career is how much you get paid. And even now he would tell me that if I go apply as a police office or for a government job. I will get 70,000 Hong Kong Dollars, which is like 9,000 Euro a month, if I apply for those kinds of jobs. And I’m always like: Were you asleep or something? If I applied for a job at the government or police, why would I do what I do now, right?”
“The things he’s trying to devalue are things that I treasure a lot. Those values entail me and embody who I am. And when he devalues those actions and values, he’s also devaluing me as a person, as an individual who reflects and who is sentimental. That sometimes influences my emotions, but not a lot.”
I would say I’m lucky compared to other families who are even more broken.
Although political views often lead to disputes in his family, Johnson considers himself lucky. Other families are much more broken. Johnson has found a way to deal with his father. He tries to understand where he’s coming from. Things were very different for his father when he grew up. Also, Chinese culture does not encourage parents to listen to their children.
“How do I deal with him? I would say I’m lucky compared to other families who are even more broken. I try to understand where he’s coming from. I try to understand his own family background. His father, meaning my grandpa, didn’t care much about his kids. So my father grew up in a family where not a lot of people would care for him. So by understanding where he’s coming from, I also try to tell myself that I might not be the perfect person. One thing that you need to understand about Chinese culture: There is a lot of hierarchy. And a father figure in Chinese culture should educate and guide his kids to success. So as his son, he will always stand on a higher hierarchy and look down to me. So that would give a discount to whatever I try to convince him of. He kind of understands he can’t change me, though he would try. And vice versa, I also know that I probably won’t change him, but I would still try. So this gives our relationship a subtle balance.”
Hong Kong is one of the few places in the world where you can see the city, the sea and the mountains all at once. Johnson takes us to the mountains of Hong Kong on the last day of our project. For him, for us, and maybe for you, here’s a little time out.
We have now accompanied Johnson for two weeks. We feel connected to him and we hope you do a little bit, too. Even though he is so far away. At the very end, Johnson has a request for us. Something that is very important to him.
The chat messages have been curated by us and shortened for better readability while the context of the messages has been retained.