On September 17, Sharon Hom spoke before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) in Washington DC on Hong Kong’s summer of discontent. Appearing next to activists such as Joshua Wong and Denise Ho, Hom argued that the US cannot afford to ignore what was happening in Hong Kong.
“Against all odds, the Hong Kong people are standing up to the powerful, authoritarian regime in Beijing,” she told CECC members. “In this historic battle, they are not only fighting for the democratic future of 7.4 million Hong Kong people, but they also holding the regional and global frontline on preserving human dignity and rights for all people.”
For many anxious Hongkongers watching the livestream from halfway across the world, Hom’s speech hit all the right notes – giving a fair portrayal of the protest movement, while highlighting issues of government accountability and abuses of power.
Some users of the Reddit-like LIHKG forum clamoured to form a “fan club,” while others gave her the affectionate nickname Auntie Sharon.
“Be like Sharon,” one user wrote – though, given Hom’s extensive CV, that may be even more difficult than LIHKG users imagined.
Hom is the Executive Director of Human Rights in China (HRIC), an advocacy group that just turned 30. It was founded by Chinese students and scholars three months before the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and for years lobbied on behalf of the mothers of those killed in the crackdown and on other human rights causes.
Born in Hong Kong, Hom teaches law in New York and has headed HRIC since 2002. She has firsthand experience of teaching in China as well, having spent much of the 1980s and 1990s at different law schools in the mainland.
One result of her tenure at HRIC was a gradual move towards professionalisation, she said. While early student leaders “knew China from inside the belly of the beast,” they had difficulty making their case internationally, especially when language became an issue.
Now, HRIC staff members have backgrounds in law, journalism, technology, history and foreign service, Hom said: “We are the people who know the law – international human rights law, which mechanisms are effective, how to appeal to [international bodies].”
At the September CECC hearing, Hom said she tried to bring an “international strategic perspective” into the discussion about Hong Kong, a move that played to her strengths in international advocacy.
“I wanted to try to convey a more comprehensive story of a very complex struggle underway on the ground, but also to share how this struggle has and continues to powerfully inspire me—and I think people around the world,” she told HKFP.
Future of the movement
Barely a week or so after the CECC hearing, it seemed that the lobbying efforts by Hong Kong democracy activists have already started to pay off. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 was passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee last month.
Hom said that the CECC hearing generated “tremendous interest,” and that the voices of activists raised the level of urgency in Washington about Hong Kong’s situation and the need for concrete action.
However, there is still a long way to go before the act becomes law and ensures Washington justifies the special treatment afforded to Hong Kong in terms of trade. The next step would be for the bill to be discussed in the main chambers of the House and the Senate, with lawmakers potentially putting forward more amendments to the bill’s contents.
Meanwhile in Hong Kong, the city-wide protest movement – which has entered its 19th week – rage on with frequent clashes between protesters and police.
Hom said that the movement needed to stay “fluid” in terms of its approach, and to think out of the box in terms of what roles can be played by different individuals and social sectors.
“I think a key challenge – which many of the movement participants have themselves raised – is how a ‘leaderless movement’ can be sustainable,” she said.
“There is a tension now that only the movement can address and decide [on], and that is how to encourage and promote non-violent tactics while still respecting and acknowledging the legitimate frustration and anger fuelling more extreme actions.”
One strength of the movement was its ability to reflect and improve, Hom said. After a protest at the Hong Kong airport in August turned ugly, there was much soul-searching among activists as to whether they crossed the line.
“I was so moved by the process of the protesters in debating and reflecting upon their actions at the first airport protests, and what kinds of apologies, if at all,” she said. “The photo of them bowing in apology to passengers frankly broke my heart.”
“The young people are demonstrating extraordinary self-reflection, taking responsibility for mistaken choices or actions and committing to doing better.”
Despite her background in US-China politics, Hom said that Hong Kong’s protest movement should be careful not to play to the international community – especially when such a pivot comes at the expense of the support and the participation of local communities.
And as the protest movement grows, Hom said there needs to be a clear framing of short, medium and long term goals – as well as how to define and achieve them. For instance, Hom said she rejected the notion that the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement failed simply because its road occupation sites were cleared after 79 days: “Too soon to tell,” she said.
The Umbrella Movement created what she called “spirit capital” that accumulated on a community level, which became invaluable in the anti-extradition bill movement five years later.
By thinking about protest movements in broader terms, the people of Hong Kong can resist the narratives of “success” imposed by those in power, and recognise the lessons in their own struggles, she added.
“Hong Kongers are making the road by walking it. That is the real revolution already underway.”
Hong Kong Free Press relies on direct reader support. Help safeguard independent journalism and press freedom as we invest more in freelancers, overtime, safety gear & insurance during this summer’s protests. 10 ways to support us.