Glacier Kwong is a political and digital rights activist born and raised in Hong Kong. She is founder of the NGO Keyboard Frontline and is a Research Fellow at Hong Kong Democracy Council in the US. In self-exile in Germany, she is pursuing her PhD in Law in the University of Hamburg, with her research focusing on data protection and surveillance in Hong Kong and China.
She addresses the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- “We don’t persist because we see hope. We only see hope when we persist.”
- Self-care is part of the revolution. “Activism, at its core, is fighting for the better livelihood of people,” so taking care of your well-being is aligned with these goals.
- We should honor the freedom and the privileges we have; use them well and not take them for granted.
- We should not suppress our feelings of sadness during our activism. Being upfront with these emotions shows our humanity and gives validation to others feeling the same way.
- “We have one million reasons to give up. But we only need one to continue the fight; that is, we know that what we’re doing is right.”
Connect with Glacier Kwong
We don’t persist because we see hope. We only see hope when we persist. Before we succeed, we are not failing. It’s just that we are not there yet.
Hello, Vicki Robin here, host of the podcast “What Could Possibly Go Right?”, a project of the Post Carbon Institute, where we interview cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good. Today’s guest is Glacier Kwong. She’s a political activist from Hong Kong, who was born in 1996. She’s the founder of the non-governmental organisation, Keyboard Frontline, that monitors privacy abuses and censorship on the web. Her interests include personal security; for example, she said in an interview in 2019, that radio frequency identification scanners can trace different personal devices like mobile phones and credit cards, so that your privacy may be abused by illegal observers. Recent news confirms that this trend is continuing and the crackdown is happening even more profoundly. As a student at the Hong Kong University, she attended the Umbrella Revolution, the nonviolent protests that struck Hong Kong during two months of the autumn of 2014. She recorded a short video during the Umbrella Revolution about needed international assistance for Hong Kong, and uploaded it to social media where the video clip gathered over a million views. She also supported the movement called Youngspiration that was created after the end of the Umbrella Revolution, to fight for seats in the Legislation Council elections. She is currently in self exile in Germany, where she is now seeking a PhD in Law, but she feels very aligned and very connected with the democracy movement in Hong Kong, and the democracy movements around the world. So now, my interview with Glacier.
Welcome, Glacier Kwong, to “What Could Possibly Go Right?” I heard you speak on an online seminar called Regenerative Activism, about your participation in the democracy movement in Hong Kong. I admire your courage, your passion, your honesty, and your surprising lightness of spirit, given the tightening grip of state power in Hong Kong. I know you’re now in Germany in self exile and studying law. You recently wrote something that I wanted to read because it impressed me. “I cannot see the endpoint of my activism or the ETA, estimated time of arrival, going back to Hong Kong. It is defeating to say the least, to see no matter how hard you work, most of your friends and colleagues are either arrested, in jail or in exile. The lack of good news makes it very difficult to stay optimistic being abroad.” And then you say later, “We do not persist only when we see hope. But only when we persist.” So I talk with cultural scouts, people who see far and serve the common good, to help us all see through their eyes, the landscape ahead. Feel free to say a bit about yourself and the history of your struggle if you’d like to set the stage for answering our one question which is, with all that seems to be going wrong, what could possibly go right?
When everything is going wrong, I think you have to be alright; yourself has to be all right. I’m Glacier Kwong. I was born and raised in Hong Kong and I came to Germany in 2018 for my Master’s program, and then I decided to do a PhD. Now I’m in self imposed exile because of the activism I do for Hong Kong. It is indeed very difficult to be in exile and to know that you will be separated from your city and your homeland for an unknown amount of time, but it is very important that I assure that I have to be okay, I have to be alright. Being okay or being alright doesn’t mean that I’m not sad or I’m not unhappy for the fact that I’m in exile. Everything around me with regards to Hong Kong is basically going wrong. My friends are either in exile or in jail, and I myself as an exile too. But things for me are going right too. I appreciate the precious freedoms and the privilege that I enjoy here in Germany; the freedom of speech to be able to say whatever I believe in, whatever I want to say. And I can still advocate the cause of Hong Kong.
We’re asking for universal suffrage, we’re asking for democracy, we’re asking for freedoms. I ask myself every day if I’m doing enough, so that I won’t feel guilty about the fact that I get to enjoy these freedoms and privileges when my friends and my colleagues cannot. And have I been utilising every moment that I have freely? Do I take breaks responsibly? Do I work hard enough? Do I spend time for myself? And so on. These are all very important questions that you have to ask yourself when everything is going wrong. Because there are those people who cannot do that anymore; like in Myanmar, people have died because of protests. In China, people are being forced to work in reeducation camps. They don’t actually have the privilege to think about what do they want for their lives. So when I have the privilege to do so, I have to ask myself constantly if this is something that I want, or if I am doing the right thing to honor the freedom and the privileges I have right now. I was always asked as an activist, What can I do? or, What can Hong Kongers do in the face of tightening grip of the states? I usually say the only thing we can do in such dire stress is that we take care of ourselves, we stay hydrated, we take care of our emotions. These things don’t seem useful; like it’s not a revolution that you’re doing. You’re simply taking care of yourself, mentally and physically. But the term usefulness is actually something that is very retrospective, that you only find some historical event useful, after things have ended and you look back and you decide that, Oh, that is actually the turning point.
So when we are in the process of trying to change the world for the better, we don’t know if what we’re doing is useful. But you have to try, just like as you as you read. We don’t persist because we see hope. We only see hope when we persist. Before we succeed, we are not failing; it’s just that we are not there yet. So I’d say when everything is going wrong, you have to make sure that you are doing okay and you are doing all right, so that you have the ability to facilitate change, no matter if it’s change that’s going to happen after a decade or two, or it’s change that’s going to happen tomorrow. For example, if you’re going to bed earlier tonight, and then you’ll be feeling more rested and more energetic tomorrow, this is a change, this is a positive change that is happening in your life. Who knows what’s gonna happen in a decade or two? Maybe we will thrive and win the fight for democracy or maybe it will take longer than we expected. But anyway, we’re not wasting a single day in our life and we’re doing the best that we can.
Wow. Such an interesting bridging between self care and a sustained democracy movement; a sustained movement that is confronting power. It’s so easy to get swept up in the exigencies, the requirements of the day, and the panic in the street, or trying to find your friend and you can’t find your friend. To be able to say that self care is part of the revolution is quite amazing. One of the things I notice about you is that you don’t seem to dismiss or disparage the fears and doubts. One way that people sometimes keep themselves going in a movement is to rise to the occasion, and to suppress the fears and doubts in service to the glorious cause. You know what I mean? But you seem to be able to do both. You seem to be able to stay connected with your humanity, and stay connected with the movement. Is that you? Or is that some quality that is in the people, your associates in Hong Kong, in the movement? Have people stayed positive – not positive, but stayed in their full humanity, even as they confronted power? I guess that’s the question.
I’d say activism, at its core, is fighting for the better livelihood of people. So it doesn’t make any sense if we don’t care about self care in any kind of activism because yourself, your mental well-being, you being happy, is actually one of the main goals that we’re after when we’re doing activism. I want to make a calmer place, so that I can be happy, my friends can be happy, and the later generations can be very content with living and growing up in Hong Kong. But about the point of suppressing the fear and doubt, I do that a lot, actually, to be honest. There are times where I don’t feel I have control over myself. I feel like if I really feel those emotions that I was feeling, like when you face close friends being arrested and put behind bars; if you really think about that, it’s actually very painful to go through. There are times where I would just work and work and try to ignore the fact that I feel very sad. This happened to me very often. But that is not doing me any good, to be very honest. It only makes me less humane, to put it that way. That is not how I should be, because I feel like being humane and feeling all the pain is one of the ways to remind myself, What am I fighting for? Because I am trying to prevent other people having to experience this kind of emotional torture. That’s why I’m in this fight. I feel like I have to be very upfront with my emotions publicly too, because if I am feeling that, that means a lot of other people are feeling it too. I don’t think suppressing would help as I experience it, so it would be great to let other people know it’s okay. It’s really okay. It’s not just you. We are all feeling the same. You don’t have to hide. We can form group therapy. We can talk to each other. We can try to work it out together. When you know that someone next to you is going through the same thing and they are still there, they’re still doing okay, you’ll feel very much relieved and feel supported because, Oh, they can do it, so I might as well do it too. It just might take longer for me. I think this is very important. Taking breaks and going through eating a whole pint of ice cream or crying overnight are very necessary things that you go through when you are in such a horrible social environment.
I’m not saying we should be very happy facing this very uncomfortable experience. But we have to admit that, Oh, I am feeling very uncomfortable, I don’t have the situation in control, I need something to help me, no matter if it’s rest or professional intervention or other things. We know that there’s gonna be a long time that we might have to experience these things, because things in Hong Kong are not changing for the better right now. You have to allow yourself a lot of time to accept that. It might be like, don’t cram your schedule. Maybe don’t see a lot of people, or see more people; it depends on the people. When you break your leg. you won’t try to go to run or go to basketball. It’s the same logic. If you’re not okay, you don’t do something. I think a very important thing is to believe that these feelings will all go away. It’s like going through a breakup. I don’t think it’s a really appropriate analogy, but because I don’t have much experience in my life, I think breakup would be the best example I have to offer. When you’re at the beginning of the breakup, you don’t feel like you’re going to love someone again. It’s like, Oh, I’m so heartbroken; I’m gonna stay the same forever. But it’s not. Eventually you will go through that period and then you feel, Oh, I can love someone again; I have so much love to offer. This is somehow the same with other emotional pain, but especially for those who are experiencing pains related to social movements and activism. It takes a lot of time to face these kind of heartbreaking situations that are happening in Hong Kong. It’s okay, just measure yourself against the measuring stick of going through a breakup. It’s okay if you don’t get out on Saturday or Sunday. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to eat ice cream. It’s okay to do everything that makes you feel better, in moderation and of course, when it doesn’t harm yourself. So I’d say activism is actually closely tied to self care in my mind because to be a happier person, to be a better person, is always the core goal of activism. No matter if it is fighting for democracy, if it’s fighting for human rights and other things. The ultimate goal is always better livelihood for everyone.
Exactly. This is such good advice also for the climate activists. This isn’t state power, per se. This is state power in resistance to doing what is necessary to avert the worst disasters; the disasters that are happening now, that are in the works. Climate disasters, that if we don’t change, will be future generations’. So it’s a similar thing. How do we live in a time when the things that we were born into, that we assume are part of life, that are rights to life; when we assume that all of that will stay the same, and then it’s crumbling around you? I think people are struggling a great deal to find their relationship with the larger events in the world. Even though we don’t yet in the United States need a pro-democracy movement like yours, we’re working it out through our Congress and we’re working it out through tools of democracy right now. But we’re all in a very long marathon, aren’t we? In a way, it’s what you’re saying; it’s like sticking up for – not that someone else is wrong and doing what they’re doing – but sticking up for our basic humanity and the beautiful world and making it for our future. In regards to what’s happening in Hong Kong now – and I know that you might need to be limited in things you say – but if you look at that situation and you say, with all that’s going wrong, what could possibly go right? What would be your reflection on this moment in time, in the Hong Kong democracy movement?
When everything is going wrong in Hong Kong, I think I have never been not amazed by the qualities Hong Kong people have. In the face of Beijing and the Communist Party that are cracking down on us, Hong Kongers have one million reasons to back down and to abandon the fight because it’s scary; because our lives, our personal safety are at risk. If we say something wrong, then we will be put behind bars. But Hong Kongers never yield. Although they’re not under siege right now because of the pandemic, their mindset about we have to fight the fight for freedom has never actually gone away. They’re still very much aware of the fact that we are still in the middle of the fight, although we seem to be losing and we are not giving up. I think this is one of the biggest reflections that I have recently, about what does it mean to be brave? Being brave is not not being afraid. It’s choosing the right thing, even though you’re extremely terrified. This is something that is very difficult to imagine for me. I have a friend, she is one of the 47 people who are now in trial for violating a national security law for taking part in the democratic primary in Hong Kong. She actually said she will not accept any conditions that are hindering the freedom of speech, in exchange for being allowed on bail. I was so amazed by the way she put it because she could just say, Oh, I’m not gonna do anything anymore; please give me the bail so that I can have a few more months with my family. But she didn’t. She simply said, No, I’m not accepting that because that’s fundamentally wrong. This kind of courage is very great. I just don’t have another better word for that. That’s great that she said that. This is something that we can all think about, because it’s very easy to give up. Like I said, we have one million reasons to give up. But we only need one to continue the fight; that is, we know that what we’re doing is correct and it’s right and that’s why we are doing it.
That is so powerful, that there’s a million ways to compromise. And probably a thousand ways to lie to ourselves that it is compromise, and probably a hundred ways to make ourselves unconscious of the little dead zones in our souls, because we’ve used the thousand excuses and used the million exits. In a way, it seems to me that kind of bravery… You get to a point in yourself that you are not, per se, Glacier; I’m not, per se, Vicki. I am my values. So in a way, it’s not personal sacrifice. It would be greater personal sacrifice to sacrifice my values because I’ve actually chosen that that is the DNA of my existence. The DNA of my existence isn’t my personal story. Somehow or another you cross that bridge. Is that a correct impression?
I’d say, yes, that’s correct. I somehow don’t see myself as Glacier Kwong when it comes to my activism. I see myself as part of the movement. I’m just one of the screws that is of the movement. I’m just part, I’m just one screw of a movement. My role is to play an activist that is working in international lobbying. So be it. I will act like a lobbyist, I will act mature enough to do that job. But I don’t feel like I’m Glacier Kwong, because I am more than that. I am the values that I believe in. I’m part of the movement. I think it’s not only me; I think a lot of my friends and my colleagues are doing the same and feeling the same. I was someone that has quite a big ego before, years before I came to Germany. I always felt like it has to be about me; like my activism is about me, it’s my personal story. But it’s actually not. The reason why I changed is that I saw a lot of my friends that are being very noble. They’re making sacrifices, they’re sacrificing their career, they’re sacrificing their future prospects, just to serve the cause that they believe in. I thought to myself, okay, even though I’m not that noble, I can measure myself against my friends. Even if I cannot do that, I can try to act like them. It’s like following their footsteps. They gave me so much courage to do what’s right, not for myself but for the greater cause for Hong Kong.
I have one final question here, which is that… As you well know, the United States is famous for emphasizing a particular kind of freedom, which is the entitlement to do, be, and have whatever I want. It’s way deep in the DNA of our country. It’s a problem for us, you know. It’s been a driver of a lot of innovation and it’s been a driver of a lot of things that we might think are beautiful about this country. But it’s also a big problem, because it makes social solidarity really difficult. In Hong Kong, is there a greater baseline of social solidarity that makes any collective endeavor easier to move with because there’s less emphasis on individualism?
I say no to that one. The reason why Hong Kongers are standing in solidarity, it’s not really because we have this mindset of we have to collaborate. It’s because we have no choice but to do so, when you face the oppression of Beijing in such a way. It’s actually not a bad thing to have that kind of freedom in the US that you can say whatever you want, do whatever you want, and have all these kind of quarrels and stuff. It’s not ideal, but it’s not a bad thing, I’d say. For Hong Kong, we don’t. I would love to argue with all my colleagues, because indeed, we have very different opinions about political ideas about what we want in life, and how do we do things, but we just cannot afford that. So we are kind of forced, in quotation marks, being forced to be in solidarity in that sense.
Interesting. Yeah, I think that’s happening here, too. We use the term intersectionality. There’s a growing analysis that all movements are one movement, and that we need to focus not on our little success of our little idea, but on challenging the forms of state power; the forms of the power of money and the state to basically deny future generations the privilege of living on this beautiful Earth with more than enough for a happy life. So I really, really thank you for these reflections. I just think it’s going to be so nourishing to the people who listen to this interview. We’ll all be examining our own relationship with the things that we care most about and how we stick with it; how we persist in the absence of hope. We persist because we persist. That’s really great. Thank you so much, Glacier.
Thank you for having me.
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