Determined Hong Kong protesters head home before tense anniversaries

Ian Timberlake
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Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, posing for a photo after an interview with AFP, has been arrested and jailed but says that's a "really small" price

Prominent Hong Kong protesters were flying home from Washington Saturday night buoyed by international support and determined to press on with their struggle well beyond two looming anniversaries.

In an interview with AFP, Joshua Wong, 22, and pop star Denise Ho, 42, downplayed the personal toll of standing up to authoritarian China and its pro-Beijing leadership in the global financial hub.

They have become the faces of a protest movement which is leaderless and whose activists take to the streets masked, partly to protect themselves from reprisals in their push for universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into alleged police abuses.

Wong and Ho are returning to Hong Kong after raising awareness in the United States, Germany, Taiwan and Australia about the pro-democracy protests that have continued for more than three months despite escalating rhetoric from Beijing.

Next Saturday is the fifth anniversary of the 79-day Umbrella Movement, which Wong helped spearhead after Beijing rejected a call for universal voting rights in the former British colony.

Ho said she worries about what might happen around that date because police have been rejecting requests for marches even though "it is in our rights to peacefully assemble."

By not allowing the rallies, authorities are violating the Basic Law that underpins the city's semi-autonomous status, she said.

- 'Might go on' -

"I do think this is a situation that might go on for quite a bit of time, and one of the ways to stop it is probably really to get the international communities come together to voice their concerns over this issue," Ho, short-haired and wearing a military-style jacket and heavy boots, told AFP in an interview.

Three days after the Umbrella Movement commemoration will be the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, but Ho said she does not think China's communist rulers would want any clashes on that day. Nor would they deploy People's Liberation Army troops, she said.

"But then you have to understand that these Chinese police are already here, they are already infiltrating the Hong Kong police force," said Ho, whose music has been banned in mainland China for her activism.

"We do expect there will be a huge number of people who would be going on the streets" to protest on October 1, she said.

The Hong Kong demonstrations, which drew millions, began against a now scrapped plan to allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland. They grew into a wider campaign for democracy, fueled by animosity towards the police, with hardcore protesters turning to violence.

Under the terms of the 1997 handover deal, the city has rights and liberties that do not exist on the mainland, including an independent judiciary and freedom of speech, but demonstrators say freedoms are being eroded by Beijing.

In Washington, Wong testified with Ho before the US Congress in support of a bill aimed at defending civil rights in Hong Kong.

Wearing a sports coat over his T-Shirt, Wong told AFP it is significant "and remarkable" that the US administration "really pay much more attention to Hong Kong protests compared to five years ago."

Part of the reason, he said, is the much larger scale that has seen thousands of tear gas rounds fired, 1,500 activists arrested and around 200 -- including himself -- prosecuted.

- A global voice -

"Even I've been arrested, jailed for 120 days, the price I pay is really small," said the bespectacled Wong, noting that some protesters with riot-related charges could face 10 years behind bars.

"More important is the solidarity of Hong Kong people encourage me (to) continue in this fight, and my responsibility and my role is to let the voice of Hong Kong people" be heard globally, said Wong, an activist since his early teens.

Ho, who also joined the Umbrella Movement and in addition became an advocate for LGBT rights, says she is unable to get brand or corporate sponsorships and even has difficulties finding concert venues in Hong Kong but "I don't really think it is a sacrifice."

She says the protesters "need to keep our spirits up" but remain determined and very strong despite the "very long battle ahead."

Although the government is not backing down, "they have really played out all their cards.

"So I guess at some point they do have to give in. It's just a matter of time."