A Fearless Pop Star Turned Democracy Activist Explains Hong Kong’s Violent Stand-Off

Singer and protest leader Denise Ho is taking the city’s fight to the world.

Vincent Yu/Jacquelyn Martin/AP

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A new surge of violence swept Hong Kong last weekend, continuing what appears to be the deadliest period of the months-long pro-democracy protests so far. As November began, a 22-year-old student fell one story from a parking garage and died following clashes with the police, sparking a dramatic escalation between protesters and authorities. Ten days later, riot police shot and critically wounded a protester at point-blank range. Another man was doused with flammable liquid and set on fire by protesters on the same day, after voicing criticism of the movement. 

Last month, Mother Jones Podcast host Jamilah King interviewed Denise Ho, a Cantopop star and one of the de facto spokespeople for this largely leaderless movement. Ho was already a prominent figure in Hong Kong, having gained fame for putting out hit albums since the late 1990s. But more recently, Ho has embraced civic activism as an outspoken critic of the Chinese government, and a proud member of Hong Kong’s LGBTQ community, after she came out in 2012. In 2014, Ho was arrested for marching in what was known as the Umbrella Movement, when pro-democracy demonstrators deployed umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas and conceal their identities.

“Right now, it is very, very much like a war zone,” Ho told the Mother Jones Podcast, during a recent trip to New York City, where she was appearing at the Oslo Freedom Forum. “Police charging onto people, arresting and beating up people on the streets. Something that we never thought would happen in Hong Kong on a daily basis.”

Listen to the full interview with Ho:

As a result of her activism, Ho’s music, which blends rock, folk, and pop influences, has been banned on mainland China. She’s lost corporate sponsorships from companies like Lancome, who came under pressure from Chinese media. But she has embraced her new role, using her celebrity and her songs to support political causes.

“In Hong Kong or in Asian communities, it is actually very rare for a celebrity to be involved in politics or any social movements,” says Ho. “In these very difficult times, I do think that there is a very important role for songs and any sort of art form.” She sees art as a form of “therapy for the people,” and notes that with the internet, artists are able to evade some of the inevitable government censorship.

Now, the civic infrastructure in Hong Kong is on the brink of a meltdown, with subways experiencing partial shutdowns, university classes being cancelled, and barricades going up in the streets. Ho reminds listeners that the ramifications of the violence and the demonstrations could extend beyond its borders. 

“Hong Kong is in this very global fight,” she says. “If Hong Kong falls, if our systems fall, if our judicial and legislative system fall, the Chinese reach could easily go even further into different areas of the rest of the world.”

HERE ARE THE FACTS:

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Our fall fundraising drive is off to a rough start, and we very much need to raise $250,000 in the next couple of weeks. If you value the journalism you get from Mother Jones, please help us do it with a donation today.

As we wrote over the summer, traffic has been down at Mother Jones and a lot of sites with many people thinking news is less important now that Donald Trump is no longer president. But if you're reading this, you're not one of those people, and we're hoping we can rally support from folks like you who really get why our reporting matters right now. And that's how it's always worked: For 45 years now, a relatively small group of readers (compared to everyone we reach) who pitch in from time to time has allowed Mother Jones to do the type of journalism the moment demands and keep it free for everyone else.

Please pitch in with a donation during our fall fundraising drive if you can. We can't afford to come up short, and there's still a long way to go by November 5.

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