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Hong Kong popstar and a face of the protests warns Australia over China’s ‘intimidation’

Cantonese pop singer-turned activist Denise Ho says she wants Australia to be wary of getting too close to China.

The sight of young masked faces is now a familiar one on the streets of Hong Kong.

In a movement that has seen the arrest of hundreds in a city which once held a reputation as one of Asia’s safest, going public as a protester can carry heavy repercussions.

But one famous face has been standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the protesters, unmasked.

Cantonese pop singer Denise Ho has been taking part in the protests in Hong Kong and is currently visiting Australia. 

She told SBS News: “I’m not a leader; I’m not someone calling the shots. But I am someone who can be recognised.” 

“I’m not a politician; I don’t have training for this. But who does? I am learning with the people together … the role I can take is to take this story to the world.”

Ms Ho says on her trip she is hoping to represent some of the views of the leaderless, which have transformed Hong Kong over the past few months.

“This is not just for Hong Kong. We are in the front-line but this fight is for the global community,” she said. 

“When you see governments from different countries, reluctant to voice their concerns, ignoring common values. Are we willing to accept this power taking over the different aspects of our lives?”

China’s power ‘intimidating’

The 42-year-old warned Australia to be wary of its relationship with China – and that economic prosperity should not outweigh human rights.

“We see this power of China, and how they violate many common values,” she said.

“This power goes into the global communities, it’s very intimidating. Whether it’s governments or corporations, they silence themselves.”

Ms Ho has personally experienced what she called pressure from Chinese authorities.

Less than a decade ago, she was one of the most successful Cantopop singers in the world, with a huge fan-base in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia.

But everything changed in 2014 when Ms Ho became the first celebrity to get arrested for joining the Umbrella Movement.

“I have been banned in China since 2014, and had almost zero collaboration with brands or businesses since then. Any brand that wanted to work with me was instantly condemned,” she said.

“It is increasingly difficult to get venues in Hong Kong. You can feel this white terror, it’s working. People are retreating even before getting a request from authorities.”

These days, her music is secondary to her activism – she still performs, but the life she described as glamorous is now dramatically different.

When the protests had just begun, she spoke at the United Nations Human Rights Council and called for China to have its membership revoked.

Her two-minute speech was interrupted twice by the delegation from Beijing, who accused her of defaming China.

Pro-democracy Hong Kong singer Denise Ho attends a press conference after addressing the Denise Ho addressed the in Geneva in July.AFP

For Ms Ho, the Umbrella Moment was a deeply personal and transformative – one in which she said she was able to find a sense of belonging to Hong Kong that superseded the perks of celebrity life.

These latest protests are also built on that same sense of youthful optimism – at the frontlines of the almost daily protests are mostly young people, who feel their rights are being snatched before them.

“We have shown that Hong Kong is a peaceful city. In the Umbrella Movement, we showed the nature of Hong Kong people,” she said.

“Hong Kong people have been through a very steep learning curve towards this fight for freedoms. It has escalated to another level of police brutality and violence that is unprecedented in Hong Kong.”

Diaspora has a role to play

Ms Ho came to Sydney as part of the Antidote Festival at the Sydney Opera House. She said at this crucial moment for Hong Kong, the diasporic community has a role to play too.

Australia has a large community of Hong Kong migrants. Most of them migrated to Australia before Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997.

In the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s, migrants from Hong Kong made up the largest source of skilled migration visas from Asia to Australia.

“I was born in the late 70s. We went through a time where we have never had to fight for freedoms. It is a heartbreaking and heavy feeling,” Ms Ho said.

“We now need the support of all Hong Kongers – and really, anyone in the world who believes in basic human rights.”

On Monday night, leaked audio of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive speaking at a closed-door meeting emerged, in which she said she would quit if she could.

In the audio, she said the controversial extradition bill was “not something instructed, coerced by the central government”.

‘”For a chief executive to have caused this huge havoc to Hong Kong is unforgivable,” she said in the recording which was released by Reuters.

In August, Australia’s Foreign Minister Marie Payne said she was concerned about the situation in Hong Kong.

“I strongly support the basic human right to protest peacefully. It is unassailable. Freedom of speech is vital, even on sensitive and contentious issues,” she said. 

“We urge a peaceful resolution in a manner that preserves the ‘one country, two systems’ model. This model underpins confidence in Hong Kong and has contributed greatly to its success.”

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