Joey Siu has a dire warning for the rest of the world.
“We can never take freedom for granted,” she told “Nightline.” “I think it is very clear that even a very civilized, very developed city like Hong Kong could be turned into another ordinary city in mainland China that is without freedom, without basic human rights and also without democracy.”
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Siu is one of the many faces in the “David and Goliath” struggle Hong Kong citizens vying for independence face against the oppression of China’s immense power.
Siu's remarkable sacrifice and determination were captured in the Oscar-nominated documentary “Do Not Split,” centered around the fiery Hong Kong demonstrations of 2019.
Once a British colony, the city had largely enjoyed some independence from the mainland until, after years of diplomatic negotiations, the colony was transferred to China in the late 1990s. It triggered a mass exodus of Hong Kongers who feared the erosion of civil rights, freedom and quality of life. Sure enough, the communist world power has steadily taken more and more control in the city.
In 2019, the government introduced of a bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China, sparking massive unrest. The proposed law was seen as an attack on Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy. The bill was shelved a week after its introduction, but the protests continued to rage on.
“We have realized the fact that it is not only just about any single legislation or policy that is going to be part of Hong Kong, it is really about the continuous and also a long-term encroachment and also crackdown from the Chinese party on the core values, on the local culture of Hong Kong,” Siu said.
She says she’s always been passionate about “understanding social issues and understanding the political developments in Hong Kong," she said, "I actually never expected myself to participate in a very large social movement as a student leader or student activist."
“But then, by accident, I was nominated by my student union council just a few days before the pro-democracy movement broke out in Hong Kong."
The 22-year-old was thrust into the revolution, propelled forward by a sense of responsibility.
“Very naturally, I just got engaged in all these organizations and all these organizing grassroots protest demonstrations and rallies and everything,” she said.
Over the course of a year, “Do Not Split” director Anders Hammer dodged tear gas and rubber bullets as he followed protesters and chronicled the chaos in the streets.
“Beijing put so much pressure on Hong Kong in order to reshape Hong Kong in their picture, and that means that these basic political freedoms that Hong Kong used to enjoy were disappearing,” Hammer said.
“The biggest impact on me was to see all these young protesters going through this great trauma and also, throughout the process, losing more and more hope and feeling stressed and desperate about losing basically their safety as they knew it,” he said.
Siu said she remembers how the response to the demonstrations grew increasingly militarized.
“To be honest, that was really terrifying, because every day when we take onto the streets, where we participate in demonstrations and protests, we don't even know whether we can safely return home,” she said.
“I just couldn't figure out how this would actually play out. How a group of very young people could take on one of the most powerful nations in the world: China,” Hammer said. “China is not known for reacting in a peaceful manner if they feel that their main political aims are being threatened.”
For that reason, Anders wasn’t surprised when Hong Kong’s largest broadcaster, TVB, which is partly owned by a pro-Beijing consortium, dropped the Academy Awards telecast for 2022. It’s the first time the network has made this decision in its more than 50 years since it first carried the ceremonies. The network called it “purely a commercial decision.”
Some reports allege that the film’s nomination for best short documentary played a large role in the apparent censorship.
“Our documentary is about how basic democratic rights are put under pressure and how, for instance, freedom of expression is restricted,” Hammer said. “With this censorship, our documentary has actually become a part of the story.”
Siu said she was disheartened to hear about the decision.
“It is actually a signal showing us that Hong Kong is really gradually becoming another mainland city and that is really, really depressing,” she said, likening it to the mainland swallowing the city’s values.
Siu was born in North Carolina, where she was raised by her grandparents. She immigrated to Hong Kong at 7 years old.
“They have always wanted me to be obedient, to be a good girl, and then [live] a very ordinary, then successful life,” she said. “Obviously I have exceeded their expectations and did not live the life that they wanted me to live with.”
Siu said her lifelong dream was to become a teacher, a dream that she put on hold when she joined the uprising.
“Every individual who decided to participate in protests in the pro-democracy struggle in Hong Kong understand[s] the fact that we are going to be put at risk,” she said. “What we were really thinking about [is] the future of Hong Kong, instead of the future of our own. I don't see that as a very large sacrifice. I know that there are a lot more of those who are making larger sacrifices than I do.”
Siu admits that almost every day she thinks about giving up, or reconsiders whether she can persevere.
“Mentally, I was very, very exhausted, very drained because I was not able to allow myself enough time to process and digest the emotions, and also, the very traumatizing experiences,” she said. “Then, on the physical level, I do not really have any time to sleep or to take a rest.”
Hammer says Siu “lives and breathes” the protests.
“She was under a lot of pressure during the time I was filming because she was a part of organizing some of the more difficult parts of the protest,” he said. “Being in touch with foreign politicians, that is seen as quite controversial by the local government and she did it in the open, so she knew that she was taking a risk.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic had largely paused mass demonstrations, thousands of activists later charged back into the streets, reigniting calls for democracy in May 2020. To quell the unrest, China stepped in to impose a controversial national security law that made it easier to punish protesters.
Siu, fearful she could be charged under the new law, fled to Washington, D.C. Then, determined to sustain the pro-democracy movement from afar, in December 2020, she testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Border Security and Immigration During her testimony, she said some of her close friends were arrested under the new law.
“That was really traumatizing and disheartening,” she said of her friends’ arrests. “Almost every prominent pro-democracy leader in Hong Kong have been arrested, imprisoned or forced into exile right now. For now, there is actually no room left for people who are still inside of Hong Kong to exercise their rights... to participate in demonstrations or to enjoy the freedom of expressing themselves, of expressing your political opinions.”
Still, Siu says there is reason to be hopeful.
“Even though we can no longer organize or participate in protest or demonstrations in Hong Kong, we have still got a lot of Hong Kongers who are trying their very best to explore the other possibilities of sustaining the momentum that we built into the 2019,” she said. “We have also got a lot of Hong Kongers overseas, different Hong Kong diaspora communities who are trying to advocate for different legislations that protect and also defend the values of Hong Kong.”
For now, Siu hopes that “Do Not Split” resonates with viewers who might be able to carry on the battle for democracy in their own corners of the world.
“This is not only a fight between the people of Hong Kong [and] the Chinese party, this is actually a fight between all the freedom lovers across the globe against any tyrannies across the globe,” she said.
For those Hong Kongers engaged in this fight, Siu said, “Do not give up.”
“The situation in Hong Kong, it's deteriorating and will continue to deteriorate. But I believe Hong Kong is always not about the place, [but] its people,” she said. “So, as long as we, the people, are still willing to pass on [the] spirit. As long as we, the people, are still willing to explore the possibility of sustaining the movement. As long as we, the people, are still willing to hang in there. I believe we will win and we will be able to fight back the tyranny someday.”