Q and A: One umbrella, one movement against China extradition

HONG KONG – Ma Wan-ki, better known as Ma Jai, has been jailed in Hong Kong, blacklisted in Macau and the Philippines, and says he would not dare go to mainland China despite being a Hong Kong-Chinese.

The only child of a former Baptist pastor and a reluctant mother-protester, Ma has joined protests since he was 16 and was for 6 years a paid action campaigner at the League of Social Democrats (LSD), a social democratic party co-founded by former legislator and social activist Leung "Long Hair" Kwok-hung.

Now 25, Ma is pursuing a higher diploma in social work while remaining a volunteer and executive committee member of LSD. He continues to join protests and rallies and has been volunteering with the Mission for Migrant Workers.

LSD is a member of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized huge protests on June 9, June 12, and June 16, that rocked the city because of its 1 to 2 million marchers opposing the government's planned extradition amendment bill. The front has also called for people to join the annual July 1 handover protest march.

In two interviews, Ma tells us why he believes in a mass movement and the need for a united front under "one umbrella." 

Q: The city's Chief Executive Carrie Lam said she would suspend the legislative process on the extradition bill. And she has twice apologized. Yet people are calling for her to step down and rallies have continued.

MA: First of all, she has not taken anything back. It (extradition bill) has not been withdrawn, it's just been delayed. Secondly, it (the June 16 march) is a message to send the government that we don't accept what Carrie Lam said yesterday (June 15) because even though she has decided to postpone it, she was still condemning the violence of the protesters, stuff like that. She still claims the majority misunderstood her. It was not an apology. Furthermore, even though it is postponed, we need Carrie Lam to step down. And then we need it to be ensured that those people who got arrested won't be prosecuted. The government has to take back what they said as they had defined what happened on Wednesday (June 12) as a riot. That was not a riot.

Q: Why was it not a riot when some protesters were using bricks?

MA: Yes, I know that some people really used violence but we don't agree with that strategy. That was not a riot, definitely it was not a riot. First of all, the majority – more than 90% of those who joined last Wednesday (June 12) did not use any violence. We were the people who got beaten up by the police. We did not beat the police up. 

We believe that violent protest is not the right strategy at this moment because we have the majority on our side. So we should not do anything that might [result in violence], that is too risky and might lose the support of the majority. 

Carrie Lam has to step down. She can't get away with it. She has been pushing the limit of Hong Kong people for the past months and now Hong Kong people have made a strong statement that even Carrie Lam and her government cannot resist. So I think the ethical move is for her to step down. She has done something against the majority. We can all see a million people (and 2 million on June 16) is a huge number.

Q: Do you think Carrie Lam will resign?

MA: I don't think she will resign anytime soon. Even when we look at (former CE) Tung Chee-hwa, it took him more than a year after the July 1 rally (in 2003 which drew half a million people over Article 23 national security legislaton) to resign. I don't think at this moment she's gonna resign but it's important that Hong Kong people can keep up the pressure against the government and if it lasts and is strong enough, then Carrie Lam would have to step down. If there is a consistent distrust towards the government, it would lose its legitimacy to rule. At some point she would have to step down if we could keep up the pressure. 

Q: Leung Chun-ying (the former CE under whose watch the Umbrella Movement paralyzed Hong Kong for 79 days) was not forced to resign.

MA: It was exactly a lesson that we learned from the Umbrella Movement because the mass movement hit rock bottom after that. A lot of splits, a lot of conflicts among ourselves. So these were the experiences that we had learned. There were people like localists – those people, the younger generation in general had strong discontent against pan-democrats, even against Long Hair.

 I am not pro-independence, not because I don't want independence but because I don't think it will work. And I think it is risky. 

When a mass movement is organized, we shouldn't do [things] that might be too controversial for the people. You see there are a million people. But if you ask them, "Do you agree with independence (for Hong Kong)?" maybe only 100,000 would agree.

What I am saying is we should unite the people with an umbrella that is mostly agreed on by most people. At this moment, that umbrella is universal suffrage, not independence. That umbrella is peaceful protest, not violent protest. So what I am trying to say is to learn from the experience of the Umbrella Movement – that we should uphold the umbrella that contains the majority, which is universal suffrage and peaceful protest.

Q: But there is no longer talk of universal suffrage. 

MA: Yes, but this is another umbrella which is agreed on by a majority of Hong Kong people. This is a temporary umbrella. For the past 30 years, the only point for pan-democrats to stand together is universal suffrage or democracy. This is an umbrella that will always hold us together until the day that we have reached democracy. But there are many temporary issues that we are concerned about, like this one – the extradition law and police brutality and other concerns.

Q: The Civil Human Rights Front has been organizing these massive rallies. How was it able to attract all these 1 to 2 million people in the past two weeks? Did the front use social media for the collective action?

MA: There are many organizations within the front, with the League for Social Democrats as part of it. So they would have meetings and each organization will send representatives to the meeting. Actually the front's convener, Jimmy Shum, and deputy convener, Figo Chan Ho-wun,  are both members of the LSD. Jimmy is older than me, Figo is a year or two younger than me. It is not only young people participating in the front, but I believe it is important for the participation of the older generation like Lee Cheuk-yan and Long Hair, because their experience and their analysis are more accurate and far better than ours most of the time.

Technology can be useful but harmful. There's a tendency, especially in the digital media era, for social media to play a big role in this kind of event. It can be used to mobilize people to spread our messages but on the other hand it can be used to spread fake news or draw a lot of hate comments. This is something that we organizers have to beware of in terms of not creating a culture that accepts fake news. For example, a few years back in the case of the right of abode for foreign domestic workers, the social media also played a big role in spreading rumors and fake news which drew the fear of the people. Nonetheless, social media played a big role in these events recently, it helped to spread news and spread messages from [organizations or people].

In the 2014 Umbrella Movement, we also used a lot of social media. With social media like Facebook, everybody has a voice. It is a good thing everybody has a voice. The bad side of it is that people now are more and more reluctant to follow any leadership or any organization. There is this tendency of individualization through Facebook because people now, everybody has a voice so why should I follow you? That's the sentiment we have to beware of. In a movement, especially a huge movement like this, a united front and leadership is needed.

Q: By 2047, Hong Kong will really be part of China. How do you see the city then?

MA: In these 28 years, a lot would happen. From the Chinese perspective, the financial crisis is coming. I think it is real because of how it manipulated its economy. China has been printing a lot of money, China has been producing a lot of goods which are not to be consumed but to boost the GDP. In the long run, these have created a huge bubble, which means that the market is not as bright as it seems to be. 

And it's quite alarming because year by year, bit by bit, it's (GDP) going down. And Xi Jinping is well aware of that. And I think this is what everything is about – like the Belt and Road, the Lantau reclamation, even the extradition law.

Q: So it boils down to economics?

MA: Yes, I think so. That's why a lot of rich people also joined us. It didn't happen during the Umbrella. This is a huge difference. The business sector never joined the Umbrella itself. But this time even the banks said they did not mind if their employees would join the strike and go on the rallies, which never happened before.

The extradition law is something [that will] work against the wealthy people in a way that a lot of Chinese businessmen, when they realize the bubble in China, [try] to take their wealth somewhere else and so they do it through Hong Kong.

Extradition law is a measure to get back those people and those money, in my opinion.  

This movement right now can be a cornerstone that we have shown our strength to the government, which is even stronger than the Umbrella Movement, even more united than the Umbrella Movement. If we can hold on to that, if we can be persistent with it, then it would be much harder for the government in the future to again and again pass legislations or anything that is against the will of the Hong Kong people. It would be harder and harder. 

But that is only with the assumption that we can stay united and strong, as we have shown these past few weeks.  

But the back flip of it is: it can be the cornerstone again. It can hit rock bottom again like after the Umbrella Movement, so it depends on how it goes in the next few weeks.

Q: It's odd, there's no leader. Is it different from before during Occupy?

MA: Even in Occupy there was no real leader. There were leaders (who have been imprisoned). The point is there was the sentiment, especially among young people during the Umbrella, that they did not trust the leaders. It is actually the same right now, right here. Some of the people do not trust the leaders. They think they are conservative, they think they are holding them back, and so these people engage in violent protests, they fight with the police. But I do agree that in a huge movement like that, a stronger leadership would lead to higher success. We need to stick together under one strategy. We cannot do our own thing. Some people say we go and fight with the police, some people say we are doing our peaceful protest. No, it does not work. It is the whole totality. 

I think this is what we learned from the Umbrella Movement. There is no such thing as you do your work, I do my work. You can't have a violent protest while we have a peaceful protest. It is altogether. It is still what we have to learn for the future. But if we compare this one at this moment to the Umbrella, we have improved in the sense that the internal conflict is less than before. 

Q: Is there leadership now? The 8 student groups of tertiary institutions have called for today's (Friday) civil disobedience and have called on workers after work to join them to surround the police headquarters and Tamar area around the Legislative Council and Central Government Offices. Are you seeing a split?

MA: I don't think it is a split. It can be potentially a split in the future. One thing is for this movement, there is the Civil Human Rights Front, which is organizing the demonstrations and rallies. They are not a leadership [body], but it is more like a platform to create an event.

It's better with a leader, not in terms of a person but a united front that makes decisions so people can follow. I would say it would be better if they (the front) can take a stronger leadership [position]. The problem is people don't answer to their call. What people are doing has been: the front organizes the rally so it provided a platform for people to join. But they are not the leaders. They don't have the leadership [position] in terms of where the movement should go. Everybody has in mind their next step but we don't have a united way of [approaching it].

Q: How does the appearance of Joshua Wong, 22, the young face of Occupy Movement, who was released from prison this past Monday (June 17), affect the movement?

MA: It is encouraging to see our comrades in this event. Definitely it is encouraging. But still my point is that, it depends a lot on whether we could successfully organize a united front. If Joshua and the other fellows come together with the Civil Human Rights Front, I think it would be much better if we can all work together rather than he doing his own thing, we doing our own thing. It is not healthy. 

Q: China has said nearly 70 statements issued by overseas powers have fueled tension over the extradition bill in Hong Kong. What do you think?

MA: It would be useful to have international support from the international bodies, but on the other hand, I don't think we should count on the international bodies to uphold justice. It is good to have international support but we cannot count on them.

Q: How did you become a student activist?

MA: I joined the LSD when I was 16 years old, during the time of the referendum in 2010. A year later I started working at the League of Social Democrats. I just graduated from secondary five and then I worked briefly at 7-Eleven and other odd jobs. I started working with Long Hair (legislator Leung Kwok-hung) when I was 17, in 2011.

There are two main ideas that I [share] with LSD. First is that we hope to achieve social change through a mass movement but not inside the system. As we can see, Long Hair has been in Legco for years but he never really believed it was the real platform to bring real change. The mass movement is more important. 

The second one is that the distribution of wealth should be more equal. That's the idea of LSD, which is different from Demosisto (the party led by Joshua Wong) or the Democratic Party (the largest pro-democracy party in the legislature). It (LSD) is a left-leaning position and that is very important to me as well. 

Q. Who are your mentors?

MA: It is just a coincidence (my having long hair is like Long Hair). I have learned a lot from him during the years I've worked with him. I've gained a lot of experience from Long Hair and other colleagues from LSD.

My father, Ma Wing-tat, also is a mentor to me. He is not an activist. He reads a lot of books. He is into politics and news. He used to be a pastor with the Baptist church. He is [currently] an editor in some Christian organization. 

At first, my mom as any mother would, strongly disagreed with me participating in all these activities as they're a bit risky. I've been arrested and she has been very worried. But since the Umbrella Movement, she has been joining rallies and protests. She was here last Sunday (June 9) and both my mother and father are coming today (June 16) for the rally.

Q: Do you really think we will achieve universal suffrage before 2047? 

MA: It is not as pessimistic as most people think for a reason that there are still 28 years until 2047. A lot can happen in these 28 years. If we look at the Soviet Union, a year ago you wouldn't have known it would fall the next year.

It's the same case with the Chinese Communist Party. There are a lot of crises that are upcoming. For example, the financial crisis, the bubble, the economy in China. Once the bubble bursts, the ruling position of Xi Jinping in the CCP would be shaken. The ruling position of the CCP in China will also be shaken. Right now, Xi Jinping can hold CCP together because there are enough resources, benefits for them to share. Once there is a financial crisis, the fragments in the CCP would rise up and also the people would rise up. The majority would no longer enjoy prosperous lives. When the financial crisis hits China, a lot can happen. 

Q: You said you were jailed in Hong Kong?

A: I was jailed in 2013 for two weeks. I was charged with something like an insult to the national flag. It was actually my friend who was trying to burn the national flag at the Chinese Liaison Office during a protest 6 years ago. It was the rally on Li Wangyang. My friend was trying to burn the national flag but he did not have a lighter. So I lent him my lighter.  

[Li Wangyang spent the longest time among Tiananmen Square dissidents in prison. On June 6, 2012, a year after his release, he was found hanged in a hospital room in Shaoyang, in Hunan proviince, China.] 

I would not risk going to China. I know some of my friends from LSD, when they went to China, they were interrogated. So I wouldn't want to risk that. Not violence, but intimidation like they bring you to a hotel room, not allowing you to leave until you tell them what they want. 

I was not allowed to enter Macau when I tried. It was just for leisure, nothing political. Anyway, I am free to go in and out.  

I have been blacklisted by [Philippine President Rodrigo] Duterte, I think in 2017. I joined some human rights conference in the Philippines and I joined some protests. I don't really know for what reason, but I found myself on the blacklist. I haven't tried [going back]. I plan to try only when Duterte is no longer the president. – Rappler.com

Mary Ann Benitez is a Hong Kong-based award-winning senior writer and editor who has worked in the city's South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Standard, TVB, and online media industry over the past 3 decades.