Geneva, Sydney, Taipei, New York—at another point in Denise Ho’s career these might have been stops on a concert tour. Instead, the Cantonese pop diva turned icon of Hong Kong’s protest movement has been traveling around the world drumming up support for her city’s struggle against authoritarian China.
Ho has spent the last five years hitching her stardom to Hong Kong’s democracy fight, and in response, has been banned from the lucrative mainland Chinese market and dropped from sponsorship deals and by her record label.
As a singer, Ho hit the mainstream in the 2000s. Then, in 2012, she was the first major female star in Hong Kong to come out, and began advocating for LGBT+ rights. In 2014, she was arrested for joining the “Umbrella Revolution,” a protest movement calling for free elections and an end to Beijing’s encroachment on semi-autonomous Hong Kong.
Amid the enclave’s latest political upheaval, Ho continues to be one of the most prominent celebrities on the front lines. When she’s not calling on the U.N. Human Rights Council to drop China from the international body, Ho can be spotted sporting the protester’s black t-shirt uniform and joining the chants of “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our time.”
TIME caught up with Ho on the sidelines of the Oslo Freedom Forum in Taipei, Taiwan last week.
You’ve paid a price for your political activism. Do you feel more Hongkongers are now also having to choose between their careers and political views?
For sure. The main thing we can see is that people are restraining themselves from speaking their minds, not only public figures and celebrities, but also really anyone who might, say, travel to China, or who might be working in the corporate [sector]. I have close friends who are scared to even take a photo with me. So you see this kind of fear and self-censorship, and it is a very dangerous thing really, because that is how Communist governments always work. They instill fear and then people do these things on their own.
You’ve said the ‘one country, two systems’ framework Beijing uses to govern Hong Kong is doomed. What do you mean?
This is a very fundamental conflict, where two very different sets of values [clashed]. It actually worked quite well for some time, not even that far [back]. In 2012, when I came out in Hong Kong I expected to be blacklisted in China, but I wasn’t. At that time, it was before the [President] Xi Jinping era. We even got a social media campaign going on [Chinese social media platform] Weibo, with people holding signs supporting the LGBT community. At the time, we were even hoping that the Communist Party was actually improving, loosening up. But then Xi Jinping took over with his very emperor-style of governing and controlling the population. It’s been downhill ever since.
So what’s the alternative?
I know that a lot of young people think that we should just basically go toward independence. But at this moment in 2019, I don’t see how we can do that right away. Maybe in 20 or 30 years the whole environment could be different. Anything could happen really with China facing external and also internal problems. From the way that they have been putting their propaganda machine at full speed, I do think they know that they are not in a very favorable situation and they are feeling the pressure. We need to keep the fight on, and just wait for something to shift.
The majority of people are not actually asking for Hong Kong independence. The five demands that we are voicing are very clear, and within that we are asking for political reform, real universal suffrage, where we can elect our own chief executive.
Why should people around the world care about what’s happening in Hong Kong?
This is a global fight. We are a front line trying to preserve universal values—freedom, justice, equality and human rights—that are common to a lot of the more progressive societies, especially Western societies. Chinese influences have been reaching out and infiltrating different corners of the world. You see them coming into different areas with their economic power and then also, at the same time, their Communist values, where they do not allow anyone to criticize them. Corporations and institutions are succumbing to this kind of intimidation. That is something that should be very worrying for anyone really. If you are someone who believes in universal values, then you are part of this fight that has brought Hongkongers onto the streets for three months.
So you’re worried about a domino effect, that if the influence isn’t stopped in Hong Kong it will spread?
It is actually happening already. You see all these institutions and brands censoring themselves, kowtowing to this kind of pressure because they want a piece of the China market. And it’s happening everywhere. In Canada, even. It was very shocking for me when I saw that my hometown, Montreal [Ho emigrated there with her parents at the age of 11 before returning to Hong Kong eight years later], they had Hong Kong activists banned from gay pride. Are we going to accept that the world will fall under mass censorship? Or is there something that we can do together to fight this kind of suppression?
Why are the protesters appealing directly to the U.S.?
The U.S. is the only country that has the power to confront China right now, and also the U.S. has always been a free and equal society, well at least a society that is trying to get to this place. So I do think that there is a sort of moral responsibility to safeguard the whole world against the erosion of these human rights and freedoms. Of course, it is not only limited to the U.S. I think that any country, and any person with the freedom to do so should be standing up against these authoritarian governments, because if you don’t, maybe some day maybe you will be the one calling for help.
What action could the U.S. be taking to support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists?
At the moment, there is the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act that is supposed to be pushing ahead. It involves [possible] sanctions on Hong Kong and China officials who have taken part in the erosion of human rights in Hong Kong, those who have not respected the ‘one country, two systems’ model. If that bill actually passes then it will probably [have] a ripple effect [on] other countries that would start to evaluate this situation and see if they should be doing the same thing.
After three months, is there any indication the protests in Hong Kong are tapering off?
I don’t see that. I see Hongkongers creating new ways to sustain this fight, whether it’s to have more non-violent actions, peaceful protests with the human chain. There is this new anthem in Hong Kong and people are singing it on the streets. That is a sort of collective empowerment where people can draw energy from others. This movement has been able to sustain itself precisely by this sort of creativity and this sort of flexibility.
What is the possibility that the protests have a knock on effect in mainland China?
It’s probably happening already. I have received direct messages on Twitter from people in China or who are Chinese living overseas. They are very supportive of the Hongkongers because they do know that this is a fight that concerns their freedoms, too. But of course, they are in a situation where it is very difficult for them to participate. In this very digitized and highly surveilled generation, we do need to think of maybe somehow going back to a more organic stage where the human touch might be key, where people can see each other and they can communicate their ideas and their thoughts.
What is your outlook for these protests?
I really have total confidence in our next generations. Already we seeing secondary school kids joining in the fight, and some are even younger. They have initiated movements on their own, forming human chains in front of their schools and so on. This kind of momentum, it really needs to go on into the next and the next generation. And I do see that happening, so that might be where my optimism comes from. At the end of the day, I do think that all authoritarian governments are afraid of the awakening of the people, and if you have enough people joining in the fight then we might have a high chance of winning.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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