Samuel Chu is used to his phone going rogue in the middle of the night, buzzing and beeping, demanding his attention. He is an advocate for democracy in Hong Kong, but he lives in Los Angeles. The time difference means that when news breaks back in China, he’s usually fast asleep. So, when his phone started going off a couple of weeks ago, he mostly tried to just ignore it, but it turns out it was buzzing from the “breaking news” that the Chinese government had issued a warrant for Chu’s arrest. Chu is an American citizen. But his organization, the Hong Kong Democracy Council, advocates in Washington for Hong Kong’s protesters. The warrant for Chu’s arrest was issued under Hong Kong’s new security law, which applies to foreign nationals even if they’re on foreign soil.
I talked to Chu about what it’s like to be on China’s blacklist and how his activist upbringing prepared him for this moment. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: How did you find out about the warrant for your arrest that night?
Samuel Chu: When I was finally bothered enough to actually pick up my phone, I realized that there was breaking news. Just a different kind of breaking news, because it was my name that was appearing on the breaking news. And it really didn’t hit me until a few minutes after that: OK. This is about me specifically. In fact, I was talking to someone after the national security law passed, and they were joking that they kind of wrote this law for YOU, Samuel.
What did they mean by that?
That they read some of those provisions as almost targeting people and organizations like mine. There’s absolutely nothing legally that the warrant could do to me. In fact, I don’t even know how they would serve a warrant, to be honest. I mean, are they going to text it to me? Are they going to email me? It’s not like they can actually serve a warrant on American soil.
It must make you feel a little crazy, though, where you’re like, Is this happening? Is this not happening?
I think that’s part of the tactic. The reality here is that this is designed to be not just a traditional, conventional arrest warrant. It’s supposed to implicate everyone and anyone who’s connected to me. And that is a much larger set of ripple effects that you don’t necessarily see. I’ve had conversations in the past weeks with American folks, just everyday Americans here in the United States who are friends of mine or who work with me. Even if they’re not in any way connected to Hong Kong, the fact that they’re related to me now creates this question of: Are they going to be censored? Are they going to be blacklisted?
You remember going to protests with your parents.
I was there in ’89 in May when the first million Hong Kongers march ever took place.
How old were you?
I was 11. Those images and the memories are seared for me as far as what it means to be a Hong Konger.
Hong Kongers were massing in the streets to show support for protests in Tiananmen Square. After the crowds in Beijing were forcibly broken up by the army, your father helped Chinese activists escape to the West via Hong Kong.
It was a smuggling operation that helped an estimated 500 dissidents escaped from the square or from other parts of the country. They smuggled them into Hong Kong and put them in safe houses and then negotiated their safe passage to Western countries.
That doesn’t sound like safe work. Did you understand what your family was doing? And did you understand the risk of it?
Yes, 100 percent. My dad actually used to take me to the safe houses on the weekends, so I actually got a chance to spend a lot of time with many of the dissidents who were smuggled out of China and into Hong Kong. And I still remember playing soccer with some of them on the weekends and watching and listening to my dad try to reassure them as they awaited their papers and travel documents.
And how did that shape your perspective?
This is why it doesn’t shock me to have an arrest warrant issued for me. I recognized the enormous risk and what it cost each of those dissidents, what it costs my family, my parents, my dad in particular. And that has been continuous. It’s not just that my dad was there in ’89. Last year, I attended the trial of my dad for his role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. And I was in the courtroom this past year when they, in Hong Kong this time, put my dad and eight others on trial for essentially organizing protests. So I think there’s been this very fundamental awareness that this has enormous consequences personally for a family and for those people we know, and that it could become not only life-threatening—that you could risk prison—but this affects everyone that we’re connected to.
I did an interview last year with a woman who’d worked as a professor in Hong Kong, and she had written an essay where she basically said: Hong Kong protesters are going to lose, but they should keep protesting anyway, because you never know. But it seems like we’re at this wall. Like everything that’s happened in the last month in terms of people’s political speech being limited seems so extreme. What do you think protest is going to look like in Hong Kong in the next weeks and months and years?
I have tremendous respect and faith in Hong Kongers in Hong Kong, because I think you have already seen, even from 2014 and from last year, that there is nothing that would stop Hong Kongers from resisting. You are dead wrong if you think that this crackdown is going to somehow limit the voices and display of resistance. You’re already seeing tremendous creativity and resilience of people figuring out ways to voice their displeasure. People are walking around, holding up blank pieces of white paper as a sign of resistance, because they can no longer display any slogans or logos or designs. I have no doubt at all that the resiliency that has been shown over the past year is just going to continue. And one of the things that the Chinese government in Beijing has to understand is that this is not like any other crackdown they have ever done. You cannot put 7.5 million people who have lived and breathed freely for generations in Hong Kong back into a controlled Iron Curtain type of environment. It’s like telling your kids, after you turn on the TV and put them in front of it, that the TV doesn’t exist.
You founded the Hong Kong Democracy Council just a little less than a year ago. You’ve worked in social justice movements for a long time. Why did it feel important to you to start this advocacy organization at this moment?
My career has been built on how do you move from grassroot protests to real permanent politics and political influence? How do you build power, essentially, of people who do not have power right now?
And your work there is mostly lobbying Washington, right? Making sure that these protesters in Hong Kong have a voice in, say, Congress.
Exactly. We needed to have a permanent presence in D.C. that would actually be able to translate the enormous goodwill and inspiration and credibility that the protests in Hong Kong were generating. And both translate it and reframe it so that it actually directly influences U.S. policy. That’s the part that was missing. So many people cared about what’s happening in Hong Kong and understood and loved Hong Kong. But many of those people just didn’t know and understand U.S. politics in the same way that I do. And so I saw an obligation there to create a U.S. voice for the movement in Hong Kong that turned out to be essential in passing actual legislation and not just having photo-ops and protests and rallies.
I was struck by the fact that you founded this organization in the middle of the Trump presidency, because it was the middle of a huge reset of our relationship with China. And I wonder if you can talk about the challenges of doing your work in this moment, in terms of who do you partner with and who do you trust?
I am one of those rare political operatives who have been adamantly and fiercely nonpartisan and bipartisan in my career. Hong Kong has always been a bipartisan issue. We have managed to maintain overwhelming bipartisan support. Recently, we have been pushing for immigration and refugee protections for Hong Kongers in light of the persecution that is now escalating. The fact that we can introduce bipartisan immigration and refugee legislation in Congress right now is in itself a miracle—under an administration and in a climate where immigration is still the last thing that I think anybody can see getting support.
So is it a little bit like the enemy of my enemy is my friend? Because I think I imagine you must struggle with this where the administration is using language of fear and nationalism to talk about China. It must be hard to be comfortable with that.
This, for me, is not new. Issues and causes have always been co-opted and leveraged by politicians and parties as their way to motivate their base. I am not a purist or an ideologue. I believe that people do the right thing for the wrong reason all the time. I don’t need them to do it for the right reason.