S1: Samuel Chu is used to his phone going rogue in the middle of the night, buzzing, beeping, demanding his attention. He’s an advocate for democracy in Hong Kong, but he lives here in the U.S. That 15 hour time difference, it 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 just tried to ignore it.
S2: But when I finally, like, was bothered enough to actually pick up my phone to try to read, I realized that this is breaking news, just a different kind of breaking news because it was my name that was appearing on the breaking news. The breaking news, it was that the Chinese government had issued a warrant for Samuel’s arrest, the first two people that I actually picked up was one who just happened to be a reporter from Hong Kong, actually in Hong Kong who called me who you know, who I should know. And just like, well, I just want to check to see if you’re OK.
S3: And if you have a statement and I say I literally you’re the first person I have spoken to since I found I mean, I’m still in bed. It really didn’t hit me until I think like a few minutes after that. OK, like this is about me specifically.
S4: Samuel is an American citizen, but his organization, the Hong Kong Democracy Council, it advocates for Hong Kong’s protesters in Washington.
S1: The warrant for Samuel’s arrest was issued under Hong Kong’s new security law. That law includes these provisions, that it applies to foreign nationals, even if they’re on foreign soil.
S2: In fact, I was talking to someone just the first few weeks after the national security law that they were joking that they kind of wrote this law for you. Samuel, what do they mean by that? That they, I think, read some of those provisions as almost targeting people, an organization like mine?
S1: Samuel is quick to note he is totally safe. He hasn’t even seen any documentary evidence of charges being filed against him, because I think there’s absolutely nothing legally that can do to me.
S2: In fact, I don’t even know how they would serve a warrant, to be honest. I mean, they’re going to text it to me. Are they going to email me? I mean, it’s not like they can actually serve a warrant on American soil.
S1: It must make you feel a little crazy, though, where you’re like, is this happening? Is this not happening?
S2: Yeah. And obviously, I think the I think that’s part of the tactic. I think the reality here is that this is designed to be not just a traditional conventional arrest war. You know, we’re trying to get you to come to your door and break it down and handcuff you and actually take you to jail. I think that the idea here is that is supposed to implicate everyone and anyone who’s connected to me. And I think that that is a much larger set of ripple effects that you don’t necessarily see.
S5: I’ve had this conversation in the past weeks of Americans, folks, just everyday Americans here in the United States who are friends of mine, who works with me, even if they’re not in any way connected to the fact that they’re related to me now, create this question of our day, going to be they’re going to be black list the fact that that conversation is happening. I mean, that’s remarkable. Today on the show, how Samuel Chu got on the Hong Kong government’s blacklist, it turns out he was practically born into this movement.
S6: I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick with us.
S1: Samuel Chu comes from an activist family in Hong Kong. His parents still live there as a kid. They sent him to the U.S. for his own safety. His parents could see even then that life in their city was beginning to change. But Samuel still remembers going to protests with his parents.
S2: I was there in 89 in May when the first million Hong Kong march ever took place. How old are you? I was 11. Wow. And I remember marching and spend the whole day walking it and you have to see what you have a million people and it’s a very tiny place. You don’t go very far when you when you march yourself. And those images and the memories, I think are seared for me as far as what it means, even at that point, to be a Hong Kong.
S1: Hong Kong shares were massing in the streets to show support for the protests in Tiananmen Square after the crowds in Beijing got forcibly broken up by the army. Samuel’s father helped Chinese activists escape to the West via Hong Kong. The project was called Operation Yellow Bird.
S2: It was a smuggling operation that helped, I think, over I think the estimate is about over five hundred dissidents that escaped from the square or from other parts of the country who was being sought by Chinese authorities. And they smuggled into Hong Kong and put them in safe houses and then gave them safe passage, negotiated their safe passage to Western countries.
S1: That doesn’t sound like safe work. Did you understand what your family was doing and did you understand the risk of it?
S2: Yes, 100 percent. And I actually my dad actually used to take me to the safe houses on the weekends. So I actually got a chance and spent a lot of time with many of the dissidents who were smuggled out of China and into Hong Kong. And I still remember and I you know, obviously I was fairly young and it’s been a long time. But I think I remember like playing soccer with some of them on the weekends and watching and listening to my dad talk and try to reassure them. But us, they’re waiting on approval of their papers and travel documents.
S1: How did that shape your perspective?
S2: I think that as I look back now, again, this is getting wider. It doesn’t shock me to have an arrest warrant issued for me. This goes all the way back to in eighty nine and ninety. And having witnessed an experience really in the presence of people who in a lot of ways had it much worse, you know, who have had to pick up and not be able to take anything they own and just go into hiding and then essentially be on the run. And I think that it reminded me of of just even that 11, I recognize the enormous risk and cause of what it costs each of those dissidents, what it costs my family, my parents, my dad in particular. And that has been continuous. You know, it’s not just my dad was there in 89 and ran the smuggling an underground railroad. I was there a year and a half ago. Last year, I attended the trial of my dad for his role in the 20 40, the umbrella movement, the umbrella movement. And so 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 protest. And so I think there’s been this very fundamental awareness that this has enormous consequences personally for our family and for those people we know, and that it could become not only life threatening, that you could risk prisons, but this affects everyone that we’re connected to.
S1: So I want to talk about Hong Kong, because Hong Kong is at this moment now. 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?
S2: Well, I have tremendous respect and faith in Hong Kong, in Hong Kong, because I think you already have already seen, even from 2014 and from last year, there is nothing that would stop Hong Kong from resisting people in the US. So what does this mean? That they will not see any more public display of resistance and protest? I said that you are dead wrong if you think that this is going to somehow limit the voices and display of resistance. And I think you’re already seeing I mean, even in the rapid pace that we’re in the moment that they started banning slogans and stickers, that pieces of papers, you’re seeing a tremendous creativity and resilience of people figuring out ways to voice their displeasure, you know, from people walking around, holding up blank pieces of paper, in blank pieces of white paper as a sign of resistance because they can no longer display any slogans or logo or design. And I think that you’re going to continue to find and see. And I have no doubt I have no doubt at all that the resiliency that has been shown over the past year are just going to continue. And I think one of the things that people have to realize, and I think the CCP, the Chinese government in Beijing has to understand that this is not like any other crackdown they have ever done. Why not? You cannot put seven and a half million people who have live, breathe 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 and say that the TV doesn’t exist. And because they understand and know now and for decades have exercise, you know, creatively and fully and vigorously their rights to free speech, a protest assembly of access to independent and fair judiciary. All of these things is ingrained. And I think it’s just different than what I think the Beijing government is used to being able to just say that, you know what? If I never show you anything that’s free, then you will never ask for.
S1: You founded the Hong Kong Democracy Council just a little less than a year ago. I’m curious, 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?
S2: So there were two things that I think were primarily that drove me and motivated and was my main concern and purpose. One is 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 that does not have power right now?
S1: And your work there is mostly lobby in Washington, right. Making sure that these protesters in Hong Kong have a voice in, say, Congress.
S2: Yeah, exactly. So the first real motivation for me was that we needed to have a US operation, a presence, 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 was generating and both translate it, reframe it so that it actually directly influence US policy and to have someone that understands US politics. And I think that that’s the part that was missing, was that so many people cared about what’s happening in Hong Kong and understood above Hong Kong. But many of those people just didn’t know and understand US politics in the same way that I do. And so I saw an obligation there to create essentially a US voice for the movement in Hong Kong that turned out to to to be essential and so critical in passing actual legislation and not just having photo ops and protests and rallies. I can see why this would be threatening to mainland China, though. Exactly. And but the way that we did it is unique also because for the first time, we have a US based organization run by US citizens that are focused on shaping US policy. I wanted to make sure that there will be a platform where Hong Kong can speak for all cultures. I think that it is one thing to relied on news media. So you, a member of Congress or our partners in international human rights, you have been a very strong advocate over the years. But my strong belief is that Hong Kong is have the best and most powerful case to make for themselves.
S1: 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?
S2: I am one of those rare sort of political operatives that have been adamantly and fiercely nonpartisan and bipartisan in my career. I have never worked on a part for a party. I’ve never worked on a candidate. And I apply that the same lens and the same values to this work in Hong Kong, which I think was essential because 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 Kong in light of the persecution that is now escalating. And I sometimes have to explain to people, you have to take a step back and understand that the fact that we can introduce bipartisan immigration and refugee legislation in Congress right now is in itself a miracle. Under administration and in a climate where immigration is the last thing that I think anybody can see getting support, but so is so is it a little bit like the enemy of the of my enemy is my friend, you know?
S1: And 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.
S2: I think that this for me is not new. I think that issues and causes has always been co-opted and leveraged by politicians and parties as their sort of way to motivate the base. I think that what the reality has been is that we have benefited in a lot of ways because of larger sets of circumstances around a pandemic about covid. I’m not a purist and ideologue. I believe that people do the right thing for the wrong reason all the time and that I don’t need them to do it for the right reasons. And I think that that’s part of understanding the politics of compromise and sort of what a democratic society and government, how it operates.
S1: You and your family, you’ve taken different approaches to advocating for Hong Kong. I want to talk about that a little bit. You mentioned how your parents are still there. Your dad’s been arrested a few times. You left an advocate from inside the United States where you’re a citizen. I wonder if the last year or so has given you any perspective on the merits of each of those approaches?
S2: Well, first of all, I, I always, from the beginning of sentence said I feel very privileged and it’s only thanks to, you know, not just folks like my dad over the years, but over the past 13 months, the protesters, the fact that they have persevered in the midst of so much challenges and threats, because I often say that if the protesters and the folks in Hong Kong just went home after the two million people March in July last year or June last year, there would not be.
S1: Well, why not? Why? Why do you think your organization, the Hong Kong Democracy Council, wouldn’t exist if the protesters hadn’t kept coming out?
S2: Because what they were able to do was to keep the eyes of global attentions, but also specifically the US politicians on Hong Kong longer than just sort of the 15 seconds and the headlines that originally the marches generated in the past. You know, there was no one to actually walk the halls and go from office to office to say, well, now we have to do something. Actually, we can’t just say that we support it. We got to work out what the US policy strategy is, but that takes time and that takes resources and efforts. And what was so important was that by staying on the street, they kept Hong Kong as a global news story and kept the interest and attention of the US officials and lawmakers.
S1: I have a friend who’s a China scholar, and she said that the one question she wanted to ask was what your favorite Hong Kong snack was and where she can get it in New York. So I’m going to ask you that question.
S2: I’m also curious, every time that I return to Hong Kong, when I leave the airport, I go to a noodle shop in in a place in a district I’ll one which is close to where my family lives and they make fish for noodles. Their fish bowl is what I look forward to every time I go. And I actually eat there probably like almost every day when I’m there. Oh my gosh. Sadly, there is just no equivalent outside of Hong Kong, so I don’t know if they are able to do this. I actually was thinking about seeing if I can maybe make a Twitter post for people to send me some fishbowls. I it was never my intention to to sort of be the face. And as I said, I mean, my training and my history of my work has always been, I believe, in building power that people can exercise themselves. But as long as you’re a fugitive, you could get some fish balls out of it. Exactly. So I’m now thinking that I don’t want to be the face, but if I’m going to be at least in the front page for a little while, I would like some perks that might come with it.
S4: Samuel Chu, thank you so much for joining me. Thank you for having me. Samuel Chu is the founder of the Hong Kong Democracy Council.
S7: And that’s the show What Next is produced by Jason de Leon, Daniel Hewitt, Mary Wilson, and we had a lot of help on this episode from Daniel Davis. We are led by Alicia Montgomery and Alison Benedict for the next few weeks.
S1: Programming note, I’m going to be on vacation, but that means you can look forward to what next episodes featuring the amazing Ray Suarez.
S6: Be sure to tune in and I will catch you back here in September. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. See you soon.