Hong Kong protest icon Grandma Wong returns unbowed after vanishing mysteriously

Hong Kong pro-democracy protester Alexandra Wong, better known as "Grandma Wong" highlighting the plight of 12 Hong Kong youths detained by China, on Oct 17, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - When protests swept Hong Kong last year, Madam Alexandra Wong, better known as "Grandma Wong", always seemed to be there. Day after day, she stood out among the hundreds of thousands of demonstrators as a small woman with short gray hair waving a large British flag.

Then, during a few tumultuous days in August when the police fired tear gas in a subway station and protesters shut down the city's airport, Madam Wong, 64, suddenly vanished.

Her friends in the movement quickly had their suspicions. They believed she had disappeared into China's opaque legal system, an alarming outcome for protesters that has become all the more chilling after Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong this year.

When Madam Wong finally re-emerged last month, she confirmed that she had been detained by the Chinese authorities.

"I worried that I would die in China," she said.

For many in Hong Kong, her detention was a reminder of what had brought them to the streets in the first place: An extradition Bill to mainland China, where courts are controlled by the Communist Party.

Her arrest was confirmation that Beijing's creeping authoritarianism had hardly been curbed by the Bill's failure to pass and that the protesters had been right to sound the alarm when they did.

In August, 12 activists were detained by Chinese officials while trying to flee Hong Kong by speedboat. They still haven't been allowed to see their lawyers.

"Her experience shows that the whole anti-extradition Bill movement was correct," said Mr Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong who helped Madam Wong during her detention.

"It shows that the worries we had about the extradition Bill were true. Look at how they execute the law in the mainland."

Madam Wong has never married and has no children. She grew up in Hong Kong and worked in the city as an accountant. But in 2006, as the cost of living ballooned, she moved to Shenzhen, a neighbouring city in the Chinese mainland with more affordable housing.

She had long written to Hong Kong officials with suggestions on how to address the city's growing income inequality - a higher minimum wage, stipends to support artists - but felt she had been ignored.

Her activism grew more serious about a decade ago. She participated in some of the city's biggest demonstrations, like the annual vigil to remember those killed in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown and marches calling for direct elections in Hong Kong.

During the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014, she spent weeks sleeping on the streets. After the protest encampments were removed by the authorities, she returned and stayed outside the government headquarters for more than a month, lining the sidewalks with umbrellas.

The playful yellow toy ducks she carried became her mascots.

In Shenzhen, where the police have more leeway to prosecute political dissent, Madam Wong would often complain about excessive security checks. But unlike in Hong Kong, few of her friends would join her in protest. When she disappeared, many assumed she had been stopped by the mainland police on her way home from protesting.

Madam Wong confirmed that she had been detained by the Chinese authorities, when she suddenly vanished in August 2019. PHOTO: AFP

Madam Wong said she had been detained while crossing the border between Hong Kong and Shenzhen on Aug 14, and spent 15 days in administrative detention without being told of her crimes. Investigators grilled her about the protests, the British flag and whether she used violence, she said. They showed her photos of protesters and asked her if she knew them.

They showed her news photos of herself: "Is that you?"

She was then sent to a second detention centre and kept in a small cell with 15 other people.

"It was very difficult for an old woman," she said.

The authorities also took her on a five-day trip from Shenzhen to Shaanxi Province in north-west China. She had visited there years before as a volunteer for a Christian charity organisation.

The return trip with the authorities was meant to show her how quickly the area had been developed under Communist Party rule, and to instil a sense of patriotism. While there, she said she had been asked to take photos with the Chinese flag and to sing the national anthem.

She was eventually released on a form of bail that prevented her from leaving Shenzhen.

The Shenzhen police did not respond to requests for comment, but Madam Wong provided documentation on her bail and a receipt for items that were held while she was in detention.

Before she was released, she said, she was forced to say on video that she had not been abused while in custody, that she would not talk to the news media about her experience and that she would never protest again.

Last month, one full year after the initial bail period began, she was given the necessary paperwork allowing her to leave Shenzhen and return to Hong Kong. She now stays in a small hotel room in Hong Kong's New Territories, but the city she has returned to is much different from the one she remembers.

The streets are no longer filled with protesters and police officers. The government has banned gatherings of more than four people, a measure meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus that has also proved useful against the protests.

And the national security law has been used to target dissidents for what the authorities have called secession and terrorism.

Madam Wong waving the British flag outside Sogo at Causeway Bay, where protesters set up camp after marching from Chater Garden, on July 28, 2019. PHOTO: ST FILE

Activist Tony Chung, 19, was charged with secession and conspiracy to publish seditious material. He was arrested last month near the United States Consulate, where, an advocacy group said, he had planned to seek shelter. Tim Luk, another activist, was arrested on Monday (Nov 9) and accused of aiding Chung.

The US has criticised the growing crackdown in Hong Kong and sanctioned key officials. On Monday, it added four more Chinese and Hong Kong officials to its list, barring them from travelling to the US and freezing any assets they might have in the country.

For Madam Wong, protesting now comes with greater risks.

Waving a Union Jack - in her mind a symbol of the rights protected by the British government, not an endorsement of colonialism - has become "very dangerous", she said. But detention has only strengthened her resolve for democracy.

Despite the pledges she made under duress, she continues to protest, and recently took the subway for an hour to the north-east corner of Hong Kong Island, where a trial is scheduled to begin for six young demonstrators charged with illegal assembly.

She walked to the courthouse carrying a handwritten sign: "Save HK Youths".

The police officers at the courthouse paid little attention to her, and when she spoke to reporters, her voice barely carried over the breeze.

"I have to continue so that we will be victorious one day," she said. "I am sure we will overcome."

The ducks have also returned with Madam Wong. She held them in a short video she sent to supporters last month.

"We are safe and sound because we are here on Hong Kong soil," she said. But the city, she added, "has already changed".

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