A US congressional group known for its criticism of China has nominated Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung and two allies who led the 2014 Occupy protests for the Nobel Peace Prize, in a highly controversial move likely to annoy Beijing.
The names of Wong, Nathan Law Kwun-chung and Alex Chow Yong-kang, as well as the entire campaign popularly known as the “umbrella movement”, were put forward to the Nobel Peace Prize Committee in Oslo by a group of 12 US congressmen.
This is the first time there has been a nominee from Hong Kong.
But the news is likely to ruffle feathers in Beijing, which sees the West’s support of the Hong Kong democracy movement as interference in China’s domestic affairs.
The submission was made “in recognition of [the trio’s] peaceful efforts to bring political reform and self-determination to Hong Kong and protect the autonomy and freedom guaranteed Hong Kong in the Sino-British Joint Declaration”, according to a letter by the congressmen to the committee.
According to the statutes of the Nobel Foundation, qualified nominators include members of national assemblies and national governments, university professors and rectors, as well as former peace prize winners.
If selected, Wong, 21, could become the second youngest Nobel laureate; Law, 24, the third; and Chow, 27, the fifth. Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014 at the age of 17, is the youngest to have received the award.
In their letter dated January 31 – the last day of the nomination period – the congressmen highlighted the trio’s “leadership roles” in the Occupy campaign through which “other pro-democracy politicians and supporters … took part in the largest pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong’s history”.
The three activists were also praised for their demonstration of “civic courage, extraordinary leadership and an unwavering commitment to a free and prosperous Hong Kong that upholds the rule of law, political freedoms and human rights”.
The 2014 mass sit-ins saw major roads in downtown Hong Kong blocked by tens of thousands of protesters voicing opposition to Beijing’s restrictive framework on a plan for Hongkongers to elect the city’s leader.
Umbrellas became an icon of the campaign as they were used by protesters to shield themselves against pepper spray by police. The campaign however ended up going nowhere and was dissolved after 79 days. Subsequently, some of the key Occupy activists, including Wong, Law and Chow, were charged and jailed for various offences.
The congressmen said in their letter: “Wong, Law and Chow and the entire ‘umbrella movement’ embody the peaceful aspirations of the people of Hong Kong who yearn to see their autonomy and way of life protected and their democratic aspirations fulfilled.
“The umbrella movement and its leadership are acting in the long tradition of previous Nobel Peace Prize laureates who captured the imagination of their fellow countrymen and sought principled and peaceful change from within.”
The congressmen also highlighted the subsequent jailing of the trio and Law’s disqualification as a lawmaker “after the Chinese central government issued an interpretation of the Basic Law deeming certain previously acceptable oath-taking behaviours … as punishable by disqualification”. The Basic Law is Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
“Joshua Wong’s sentiments on Twitter immediately after the announcement of his prison sentence capture well the optimistic and persistent spirit that animates their efforts: ‘The government can lock up our bodies but they cannot lock up our minds! We want democracy in Hong Kong. And we will not give up.’”
The letter was jointly signed by 12 congressmen, including Republican senator Marco Rubio and representative Christopher Smith, as well as four of their colleagues in the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, of which Rubio and Smith are chairman and co-chairman respectively.
Last year, the commission highlighted in its annual report the deterioration of human rights in China and also expressed concern over Hong Kong’s press freedom as well as the disqualification of lawmakers.
Rubio and Smith then also stated their intention to nominate the three activists and the entire “umbrella movement” for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize.
Calling the trio “champions of peace and freedom and Hong Kong’s entire pro-democracy movement”, the congressmen also noted the Nobel Committee’s “past willingness to brave the displeasure and outright retribution” of China in awarding the prize to political dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010.
Liu was jailed for what Beijing called “inciting subversion of state power”. Mainland authorities criticised the awarding of the prize to him as “politically motivated”.
The laureate was barred from going to accept his prize. His absence was marked at the ceremony by an empty chair.
Liu died last year, becoming the first Nobel Peace Prize recipient to perish in custody since German pacifist Carl von Ossietzky, who died in 1938 after years in a Nazi concentration camp.
The Nobel laureates are to be selected by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Winners will be announced in October, with the awards ceremony in December.
Law Yuk-kai, director of Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, said the trio deserved the recognition.
“Participants in the ‘umbrella movement’ insisted on making the campaign peaceful and orderly – that deserves international recognition,” Law said. “If they win the prize, Hong Kong’s social movements will enjoy the moral high ground.”
But New People’s Party chairwoman and executive councillor Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said it was “ridiculous” for the trio to be nominated.
“What have they done to deserve that? It was an illegal ‘Occupy Central’ movement … They had no right to occupy the streets – there were outbursts of violence and they were charged and convicted,” she said.
The three had not been “hailed as advocates of democracy or heroes by most of the people in Hong Kong”, she added. “The congressmen’s nomination is politically driven … It is not fair.”
Wong himself was once quoted as saying he would not deserve such an honour, but that the nomination should go to all the Hongkongers who took part in the “umbrella movement”.