Unfree Speech: The Threat to Global Democracy and Why We Must Act Now

Joshua Wong

WH Allen, £9.99

By Fiona Rintoul

Towards the end of Unfree Speech, the author, Hong Kong student activist Joshua Wong, tells how the Thai authorities detained him at the airport when he was on his way to give a talk on youth activism at a Bangkok university. “This is Thailand, not Hong Kong. Thailand is just like China!” an official snarled at him, as he languished in a dark cell before being packed off back to Hong Kong 12 hours later.

“Those were by far the scariest hours in my life,” writes Wong, who, at 23, has twice been imprisoned in Hong Kong. “The episode was a wake-up call to me that Beijing’s long arm has reached far beyond its soil and that many foreign governments have been cowed into doing its bidding.”

That we should all be afraid of China’s long arm is the central thesis of Unfree Speech. In Wong’s view, the world’s second most powerful nation is part of a global trend whereby autocratic regimes are undermining free speech and democratic rights.

Hong Kong, with its special but fragile status under the “one country, two systems” framework, which is enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration that paved the way for the British colony to be handed back to China in 1997, is “the canary in the coal mine”. What happens in Hong Kong today may be coming “to a political theatre near you” tomorrow.

“A new cold war is brewing between China and the rest of the democratic world, and Hong Kong is holding the line in one of its first battles,” writes Wong, who traces this conflict’s origins to 2012 when Xi Jinping came to power.

Xi is an autocratic “wolf in panda’s clothing” who has scotched the free world’s fond hope that economic prosperity would bring political reform to Communist China, believes Wong. He has removed presidential terms, effectively crowning himself Emperor for Life.

In mainland China, Xi has purged political rivals and uses cutting-edge technology to monitor and manipulate China’s citizenry. In Hong Kong, where citizens are looking down the long barrel of 2047 when the transition period ends, he has throttled free speech through “white terror” – pressure on businesses and individuals to toe the line.

Wong has been at the forefront of Hong Kong’s resistance to the unloved motherland since 2011, when he founded the student activist group Scholarism. In 2014, he played a pivotal role in the Occupy Central protests. He is now secretary-general of the pro-democracy party Demosistō.

Unfree Speech is both the story of that journey and a call to arms. Arranged in three “acts”, it covers Wong’s early activism and his 69-day imprisonment in the year he turned 21, which is explored through journal entries and open letters to supporters, before making the case that global democracy is under threat.

Readers learn practical ways they can resist both “the arc of China’s gravity” and the erosion of democratic values in their own country. For the rise of populism means that “even advanced economies are not spared the same ‘boiling frog’ scenario facing Hong Kong”.

Drawing parallels between his own activism and movements such as Extinction Rebellion, Wong suggests that a formidable new “fifth estate”, often led by millennials and Generation Zers, is coalescing across the world. “When the three branches of government – executive, legislative and judicial – are no longer effective in safeguarding democratic values, and the fourth estate of the free press is being targeted and silenced with growing intensity, a fifth power emerges to provide the necessary checks and balances on those in power.”

Wong and his colleagues have scored remarkable victories, such as China’s withdrawal of the proposed Hong Kong extradition bill – the only time President Xi has backed down, according to Wong. However, it is one thing to be a successful activist and another to write a good book, and Unfree Speech, which was composed with the help of Jason Ng, is a patchy work.

Insightful and inspiring by turns, it is also turgid in places, with the final section being by far the most compelling. Business jargon such as “takeaway” and “point of inflection” infects the prose, meaning Unfree Speech sometimes reads more like a manual for entrepreneurs than activists. One half expects to learn that the “Big Hairy Goal” is to end Chinese hegemony.

But these are quibbles. This is an important book, published at the right moment. The Coronavirus outbreak shows where censorship can lead. And, as Wong knows, unfree speech is a disease that is crossing borders. Whether we are screaming “TERF” every time a woman mentions biology or refusing journalistic scrutiny as politicians, we in the West are contaminated by it too.