Frances Hui Isn’t From China: One Woman’s Fight for the Hong Kong Identity

By Grace Bydalek

Frances Hui was born in 1999, just two years after the United Kingdom ceded control of her homeland to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). 

“China promised one country, two systems,” she said of the CCP’s acquisition of Hong Kong during a recent speech at the Geneva Summit in 2023, “so that Hong Kong would not change for fifty years, and Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong.”

In spite of the CCP’s best efforts to signal otherwise to the outside world that things would remain status quo, Hongkongers watched their country backslide into authoritarian rule.

Now, Hui said of herself and fellow Hong Kong dissidents: “We are fighting for our democracy.”

Hui was 10 years old when she learned about the Tiananmen Square massacre that took place in Beijing, China. After viewing a documentary about the atrocity where student-led demonstrations against China’s oppressive government resulted in a death toll in the thousands, she said she was shocked that it had happened in 1989, only twenty years prior. 

So, Hui attended an annual vigil in Victoria Park, a public park in South Hong Kong. Though Victoria Park is roughly 1,200 miles away from Tiananmen Square, it serves as one of the last places in China that could honor the victims.

It was then that Hui said she knew Hong Kong was different from China. 

“It was my first experience seeing people freely gathered to express themselves, and it left a profound impression on me about freedom of speech and freedom of assembly,” she said in an interview with IWF, “both values that defined Hong Kong, but had ceased to exist in mainland China… it ignited something in me.”

By 2012, when the Hong Kong government announced the mandatory integration of Chinese patriotism classes in all public schools, Hui’s spark for advocacy had become a fire. 

At only 12 years old, she joined the nearly 90,000 people who marched in protest from Victoria Park to the government headquarters, eventually blocking off many parts of Causeway Bay. The protesters chanted: “No thought control! Preserve one country, two systems!” Ultimately, the government suspended the plan. 

“I saw people around my age, wearing school uniforms, protesting and taking a leadership role in social movements,” Hui said. “I saw them in me.”

Hui became a part of a group known as “The Scholars”—young individuals who participated in the 2014 protests against the CCP election scheme to further restrict Hongkongers’ already-limited rights to elect their own chief executive. Scholarism, the official name of the student activist group founded by Joshua Wong, was reported to have over 200 members in 2015.

At the same time, the Umbrella Movement began, which Hui recalled as another major turning point in her dissident journey. Tens of thousands of people arose in the “Umbrella Revolution,” a 79-day occupation of major city centers, wielding only umbrellas as passive resistance. 

“They chased us, beat us, pushed us back,” she said. Hui says she was clubbed with a police baton and pepper sprayed. “But we didn’t give up.”

“Because of that experience, I developed a sense of what it meant to identify as a Hongkonger,” Hui said.

Hui took this sense of purpose—and a newfound love of journalism—to study overseas at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. There, she said that a lot of her friends had never heard of Hong Kong. 

“They’d ask me how it [Hong Kong] was different from China,” she said. “I thought I should write something to give people background, the context of the political complication.”

On April 21st, 2019, her piece entitled “I am from Hong Kong, not China” went live in the Berkeley Beacon’s “Person of Color” column. 

“I am from a city owned by a country I don’t belong to,” her column began. She continued:

“During my orientation last fall, the School of Communication’s presentation about international exchange programs listed my hometown as ‘Hong Kong, China.’ This move might flatter most of the Chinese students at Emerson, yet it upsets me to see how unaware the college is to this topic.

“I have never felt so desperate to find other people from Hong Kong and advocate for my culture. I recognize the absence of that voice on campus for Taiwanese, Hongkongers and other Chinese minority groups.”

Hui recalled that there was a massive backlash from the Chinese student community. She said that she was verbally harassed and received several death threats. Though she reported the incidents, Hui said that the school took no action. 

“I felt isolated,” she said. “I realized a lot of the schools in the U.S. didn’t want to talk about it [the on-campus harassment of students from Hong Kong] because of the tuition they receive from international students, especially from China.”

Despite the campus controversy, Hui said that her article struck a chord with Hongkongers both at home and abroad. With the influence she’d amassed through activism, Hui began to organize rallies around the world in support of the various protests throughout the 2019-2020 period, like the “612 incident.” 

While still studying in Boston, Hui recalled how she was on the international frontlines not only coordinating rallies, but briefing officials in Congress about the plight of those still in her home country. 

In March 2020, Hui founded We The Hongkongers, an organization dedicated to promoting the culture and identity of her homeland. Hui urged followers to write-in “Hongkonger” in the 2020 U.S. census.

This move spawned similar protests in the United Kingdom and Australia the following year.

As the global COVID-19 pandemic broke out, Hui said that she returned to her home in Hong Kong to start a new chapter. Only four months later, in July 2020, the government implemented the radical National Security Law, under which any act of “colluding with foreign forces” was a punishable offense. 

Hui said that she knew this law was bad, not only for Hongkongers in general, but for her advocacy work specifically as she engaged with foreign governments (especially the U.S. government) to get bills passed to support Hong Kong’s democracy. 

“The law is weaponized to impose a chilling effect on the society,” Hui explained. “It stretches beyond the political spectrum to people who are implicated just simply for talking about democracy or wearing a T-shirt that says liberate Hong Kong.”

Since its passage, the law, which punishes “secession from, and subversion, terrorism or collusion against” the CCP, has been used to crack down on many pro-democracy activists—first student activist Tony Chung, then billionaire Jimmy Lai, and the 53 people involved in the democratic primaries.

Hui said that she was warned by multiple sources that if she didn’t leave as soon as possible, she would be arrested. So, two weeks after the law passed, Hui bought a one-way ticket to the U.S.

“At that point,” Hui said, “I realized there was no way I could go back.”

In December 2020, Hui announced to the public that she’d left her home country indefinitely. Her request for political asylum was approved the following year, making her the first activist from Hong Kong in the United States with that status. 

After settling in Washington, D.C. in late 2022, Hui continued her advocacy by joining the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, the Dissident Project, and other pro-democracy organizations. She also played a key role in pushing a Sanctions Bill through the U.S. Congress.

Then, in late 2023, Hui became one of five young people added to the Hong Kong Police Force’s “Wanted Persons” list, along with prominent activists Jonny Fok, Joey Siu, Simon Cheng, and Tony Choi. 

A bounty of $1 million Hong Kong dollars has been offered for their capture. This list followed a previous bounty issued for another eight activists in July 2023: Anna Kwok, Ted Hui, Dennis Kwok, Nathan Law, Elmer Yuen, Mung Siu-Tat,Kevin Yam, and Finn Lau.

In January 2024, Hui said that her mother was detained for questioning in Hong Kong. This is how China exhibits control over their dissidents from overseas, said Hui, along with data-harvesting initiatives like TikTok.

According to Hui, conditions in Hong Kong have only worsened since she fled four years ago. Recently, the city’s legislature passed Article 23, a sweeping set of laws targeting “domestic” threats to security, including treason, espionage, and theft of state secrets, with sentences up to life imprisonment.

“It’s very surreal to think that Hong Kong has changed so much in just a few years,” Hui said, recalling how she learned about freedom of speech, press, assembly, and more in her adolescence. She continued: 

“Kids right now don’t have the same experience. They learn about so-called freedoms in textbooks, but don’t see them in real life. There are no protests happening in the streets—the people who protested are now in jail. Their peers and families are careful about what they discuss.”

Hui voiced her concern for the future of the Hongkonger identity—a nationality that she has spent her teenage years and young adult life fighting to preserve.

“I’m curious to know how the next generation will be, growing up in that environment,” she said. “Will we see a generation who does not care what is happening around them in society?”

As for citizens of the United States, Hui advocates that Americans practice gratitude. 

“People don’t know how lucky they are to enjoy the freedoms they have,” Hui said. “Coming from an authoritarian state, seeing my friends jailed, having to leave my home—I understand how horrible it is to lose it all. We should celebrate our freedom, and the people who built the foundation for us.”

For more information about our Dissident Stories, click here.
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