As It Happens

Why this Hong Kong pop star confronted China in front of the UN Human Rights Council

A Hong Kong singer and pro-democracy activist asks the UN to intervene in the battle against the city's proposed extradition law — and reconsider China's membership in the Human Rights Council.

Singer and pro-democracy activist Denise Ho calls on UN council to rescind China's membership

On Monday, pro-democracy Hong Kong singer Denise Ho demanded the United Nations Human Rights Council denounce a proposed law that would allow extradition to China. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)


For weeks, Denise Ho has been among the thousands of people in the streets of Hong Kong protesting a bill that would allow suspects to be extradited to mainland China. 

The Hong Kong-based singer and pro-democracy protester and LQBTQ rights activist is one of the few celebrities in the city to openly defy the proposed bill.

But for the last few days, Ho has been in Geneva, Switzerland, taking her fight to the United Nations Human Rights Council.

It's not the first time Ho has used her platform to stand up to the Chinese government. Ho was arrested during the Umbrella Movement protests in 2014. The Cantopop star has been banned from performing in mainland China and her music has been pulled from Chinese streaming services.

As It Happens guest host Robyn Bresnahan spoke to Ho about her decision to address the United Nations on Monday. Here is part of their conversation.

Denise, what was your message today to the UN Human Rights Council?

My message today to the council is that China is a country that is abusing human rights and democracy in Hong Kong and also in other places.

My demand and my request is that the United Nations put this in question whether ... they should still keep China as the member of the Human Rights Council. 

Also, of course, I raised the issue about the one country, two systems model that has also been abused by the Chinese government in Hong Kong and our autonomy in the Hong Kong legislative system being taken away.

What kind of reaction did you get from those present?

I was interrupted two times by the Chinese delegates who were in the council, basically for quite ridiculous reasons.

They said I was attacking China and putting Hong Kong at the same level, which was not true. I was only mentioning the interference of China in Hong Kong's legal affairs.

What was your reaction when the Chinese delegation interrupted?

I was prepared for these interruptions because I have seen other speakers on China issues and most of the time they would try to stop the speakers and interrupt.

But, of course, it was my first time speaking in the United Nations council. It was a time issue because I only had 90 seconds.

So, with only 90 seconds, what do you think you achieved today?

I made the Chinese delegate speak up and that was, in my opinion, an error from them because it only shows how restrictive they are against the people who speak in opposition of what China is doing.

I think the message is quite clear.

Should the United Nations keep this powerful country within their council when they are abusing human rights and democracy — not only in Hong Kong, but also in Jinjiang, in Tibet, everywhere in China, basically?

The international world needs to hear this message because, obviously, the countries do not dare to speak up in fear of political and economic reprisal. And so it comes back to the people to talk about these issues.

Ho was arrested in 2014 for her involvement in Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement protests. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Why is this so important for you, personally? A lot of people have said that you have been pretty much blacklisted now in China. They won't play your songs. You've lost a lot of revenue. Yet you are one of the few artists in Hong Kong to keep speaking out about this.

Yes, and with this very strong statement today against the interference of the Chinese government, I guess I will be even a bigger target for them.

For myself, I see all these young people on the streets. They are very desperate in Hong Kong with a government who does not listen to the people and only responds to the Chinese government.

I think we really have to be united together as one community to fight against these erosions of the democratic system and also because there are not a lot of celebrities who have chosen to speak up.

I think that I have to do whatever I can to get the word out into the international world.

This is certainly not the first time that China has been accused of human rights violations. What difference do you think that your message will make?

Obviously, I think it might not do a big difference within the United Nations because China [has] a very powerful influence on many of the countries who are in the United Nations.

I think the international press, they could see these delegates trying to stop someone from speaking the truth, and that is something that is powerful in itself.

The Chinese delegation had a chance to reply to your 90-second statement today. And when it did, the delegate said that the chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, has put this bill on pause in order to listen more. Does that give you any sort of hope? 

No, because this is not a legal term in the Legislative Council. You cannot suspend or just stop the bill. 

You can withdraw it or you can postpone it. But there is no such thing as a suspension in the very legal terms.

So, as Hongkongers know, the Hong Kong government really loves to use word tactics and just basically to postpone things and to try to pitch it again when the crowds get more calm.

But this is not working anymore this time because we have been tricked enough.

As you can see the protests have been going on ever since June 9, and it's still going strong. We had 200,000 people on the streets just [Sunday].

I believe this is going to be a very long fight, and for Hongkongers, it is up to us to make it into a very sustainable fight because at the end of the day, it's not only about one extradition bill.

It is about all the frustration and the anger of the Hong Kong people with our autonomy and our freedoms not being respected.

As Ho pivots between activist and artist, many Chinese streaming services have pulled her music from their sites. (NTB Scanpix/Ryan Kelly via Reuters)

Earlier in the interview, you said you are a target for them, meaning a target for the Chinese. Do you fear for your life?

That is not something I would think about too much. I worry a lot about Hong Kong people's future.

We can see people being arrested for no reason in Hong Kong right now. And also we had four suicides within two weeks because of the despair that the Hong Kong government is bringing onto the people.

I think, in these aspects, I am willing to fight on for the Hong Kong people as long as I have the platform and voice for that. If any personal risk and threats, I am ready to come forward against that.

Written by John McGill and Morgan Passi. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.


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