On Christmas Eve in Hong Kong, police were deployed across the city to quell alleged anti-government protests. But despite the strong security presence that canceled any generalized gathering, one woman demonstrated alone: Alexandra Wong, 64.
“Grandmother Wong,” as young activists affectionately called her, was a regular site during protests last year, where a giant union jack is expected to be deployed at rallies. For Ms Wong, the flag – which is despised by the Chinese Communist Party as representing British colonial rule in Hong Kong – was the ultimate symbol of the challenge.
Authorities ran out of patience in August 2019 and detained her on her way to her home in Shenzhen across the border in mainland China. After an absence of 14 months, she is back to protest in Hong Kong – as openly as ever despite a suppression of dissent in the territory under a national security law imposed by Beijing in June.
Although less well known abroad than other protesters, such as Joshua Wong, student activist or dissident media mogul Jimmy laiMs. Wong’s supporters say few individuals better represent the bravery and resilience of the territory’s pro-democracy movement.
Some even talk about nominating her for a Nobel Prize. “Grandmother Wong is an inspiration to generations of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong,” said Lord Alton of Liverpool, a member of the group supporting the Nobel Prize campaign.
Ms Wong told the Financial Times in an interview that she feared Beijing wanted to suppress the high degree of civil, legal and political freedom promised to the Asian financial center when it was transferred to China from the UK in 1997.
“I am ready to die,” said Ms. Wong, who now lives in a hotel in Hong Kong. “They will oppress us if we don’t protest and we will lose more freedoms.”
A tiny, gray-haired figure, the retired accountant became a full-time protester during the territory’s first major pro-democracy protests, the Umbrella Movement of 2014, when protesters occupied central Hong Kong to demand suffrage universal.
When new protests erupted last year, this time over a draft extradition bill to mainland China, Ms. Wong became a regular person, often caught up in battles between protesters and police. His signature union jack was to express his thanks to the former British colonial government for bringing the rule of law to the territory and an excellent education system.
But the flag has also caught the attention of Chinese authorities. After her arrest in mainland China, she was detained for 45 days and questioned about her involvement in the protests and her militant contacts.
Ms. Wong remembers sleepless nights in a cell lying on a single platform with 16 women shoulder to shoulder under bright lights. The conditions plunged her into a deep depression. “I wanted to kill myself,” she says.
Then followed a patriotic “re-education” trip to Shaanxi Province, northwest China, where she was forced to sing Communist Party songs and wave a Chinese flag. Ms. Wong was eventually released on bail after being charged with “picking a fight and causing trouble.”
She was allowed to return to Hong Kong in October and, despite official warnings from mainland authorities, resumed her protests. The Shenzhen Public Security Bureau did not respond to a request for comment.
Authorities argue that the crackdown in Hong Kong is necessary to protect national security and curb last year’s protest movement, which began peacefully but has turned into city-wide clashes between police and protesters.
In addition to arresting activists, the Hong Kong government is purging the legislature, civil service and schools of dissent. The National Security Law provides for sentences of up to life imprisonment for crimes such as subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism.
Ms. Wong is also under pressure. The pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po called her a “crazy colonial lover.”
Since returning to the city, Ms. Wong has been charged with assault for allegedly pushing a security guard in a Hong Kong court last year.
Single and childless, Ms Wong said she saw young Hong Kong protesters as her grandchildren and urged them to flee to the UK or Canada and keep protesting.
“The more people who run away, the better,” she said.
Since returning to Hong Kong, Ms Wong has attended court hearings to support young protesters and has organized one-person protests outside the city’s legislature and the office of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive.
She admitted to being afraid of the new national security law, but said she felt safer in Hong Kong, where the media could still report on her situation.
“I don’t want to leave Hong Kong. Hong Kong needs me, ”she said.
Ms Wong replaced her union jack trademark, which was confiscated by mainland Chinese authorities, with a tote bag featuring a huge version of the British flag. She uses it to carry her protest gear.