Hong Kong protest organizer Lester Shum talks with FP about his time in jail, his American passport, and the advice he gets from his mother.
- By Suzanne SatalineSuzanne Sataline is a writer based in Hong Kong.
The end of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, which have crippled key districts of the Asian financial center since Sept. 28, is in sight. Hong Kong police announced on Dec. 9 their plans to clear Admiralty, the last major protest site, at 9 a.m. on Dec. 11. Though some protest leaders have called for the end of the protests as public support for the occupation has waned in recent weeks, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS), one of the student groups that has led the protests, stated on Dec. 10 that its members will peacefully resist the clearance “till the last moment.”
Surrounded by fellow university student leaders, Lester Shum stands out. The 21-year-old HKFS deputy secretary is known for his stylishly cool hair, dimpled grin, and energetic speeches. Shum once told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, “I would rather be arrested than surrender,” and in fact he has — three times since July. A government and public administration student at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shum spoke with Foreign Policy on Nov. 22 about democracy in Hong Kong, repercussions protesters may face, and the long-term prospects of the movement. The interview has been edited.
FP: What is HKFS’s advice when police plan to clear protest zones? Should protesters fight when bailiffs and police get there?
Shum: Our advice is we have to stick to our spirit of civil disobedience, so that Hong Kong stays peaceful, until we get arrested. But whether the protesters will get arrested or not, or choose to go away, is a matter of course. We are not forcing anyone to do anything.
FP: Are you trying to end the sit in?
Shum: We are currently trying to figure out the right time to leave … We cannot leave the occupy area before the government has made any concessions. We are still trying to determine if we should use more aggressive action; or whether we should maintain the status quo; or whether we should turn the political power made by this Umbrella Movement over to someone else.
FP: During the October televised meeting with government officials, students offered numerous ways to revise the political system. One suggestion was to get rid of functional constituencies [the elections system that allows blocks of interest groups to elect lawmakers and the chief executive.]
Shum: The problem is that the functional constituencies are controlled by a few people, a few rich people, merchants like Li Ka Shing. Those three parties — the Hong Kong government, the Hong Kong capitalists and the Chinese government — have control over the political system. It’s just like the United States, where Congress is controlled by a few capitalists.
FP: Were you surprised that the government refused to speak with students after early talks in October?
Shum: Of course we are angry about that. I would not say surprised. They [in government] do not have the courage, or they do not have the bravery, or they do not have the power to respond to our demands.
I think they [in government] saw the power of the Occupy movement is diminishing. They know that and we know that. And they let it pass. They do not ask police to arrest us. They do not actively solve this problem. They let us stay here and let those Hong Kong people become more angry with us and disapprove of us. That’s their tactic.
FP: Wouldn’t it be a good idea to go home and regroup and come up with a new plan?
Shum: We cannot let this movement end here. Because we know that the road towards democracy must be a long one. And the Communist Party and the Hong Kong government is very tough.
Probably what we are going to do, we have to come up with something to involve Hong Kongers so they can continue the movement. We have to discuss with the protesters in different protest areas. … If they insist they cannot retreat or they cannot go home, if they insist that the Occupy movement must continue, we cannot ask them to leave.
FP: Did you expect the size of the Occupy camps to grow as large as they did?
Shum: No. Alex [Chow of HKFS], Joshua [Wong of Scholarism, another student movement], and I were arrested on Sept. 27. We were detained for a very long time. And when we came out, the whole world changed! When we came out from the police station, we were like, ‘what the fuck is happening in Hong Kong?
I missed it. It was the most exciting day in Hong Kong. And I was in jail.
FP: Will there be repercussions for student protesters?
Shum: We have heard it confirmed: 500 people are targeted by the national security system of the Chinese government. We do not believe that all the students who take part in the movement are targeted because it is really a massive order to take out all the students because so many students and so many youngsters and so many Hong Kong people have participated in the Umbrella Movement. They just sought out some leaders and people in [various organizations]. And some NGOs that work in the front of this movement. And the pan democrat [politicians] must be targeted.
FP: Is the government monitoring student leaders?
Shum: My address Joshua Wong’s address, and Alex Chow’s addresses were compromised.
FP: Meaning they were put out on the Internet?
Shum: Yeah. It’s not that we can’t go to the police. Disclosing some personal information on the Internet, we cannot issue any illegal action on them. Who is behind that? There is nothing we can do.
FP: If you had to leave Hong Kong, could you?
Shum: Yeah. I was born in New York. I was always wondering why they still haven’t attacked me on that. Because many people know that, but they always attack Joshua Wong on that. That he is going to America after this movement, or he will get a U.S. visa, or he is going to the United States to study. And I’m the one holding a U.S. passport!
FP: That gives you some protection.
Shum: People will say so, yeah. I don’t think so. Because I have thought about this for a long time. Do I leave Hong Kong? I will face death threats. Real death threats. Some legal consequences. I must face that in Hong Kong. Because that is the responsibility. That is the spirit of civil disobedience.
FP: Why did your parents move to the United States?
Shum: My parents went there because of 1989, [when student protesters occupying Tiananmen Square in central Beijing faced a military crackdown]. They were worried about [Hong Kong’s] return to China in 1997. Many people left after 1989.
FP: How supportive are your parents of your protest work?
Shum: They’re supportive. We text. [My mother says] to get more rest. Be more careful.
FP: What will you be doing 10 years from now?
Shum: I don’t know. I really don’t know.
FP: You’ve got that passport. You could work in the United States.
Shum: If I want to work in Hong Kong politics, it is political suicide. Politics and social movements are still really my future.
If I really need to one day, I will drop my U.S. passport. Because what I’m doing here makes me feel I’m a local among Hong Kong people. I really do not need to make use of my U.S. passport.
FP: You mean renouncing your citizenship? Have you thought about doing that?
Shum: Yeah! If it was under attack seriously or if it would undermine my credibility.
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