Photo: Ben David Godson, “Hong Kong Protests at Exeter Uni”, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0; edited by Lausan Collective

Building Hongkonger civil society in diaspora

Reflections on democracy and diaspora organising in Britain

The first UK-Hong Kong Summit, held in London at the end of March, brought together over a hundred participants from 62 different Hongkonger organisations in the United Kingdom for three days of talks, panels, and discussion. A group discussion on the second day focused on the short and long-term goals of the nascent Hongkonger civil society in the United Kingdom. Summit attendees were assigned to small groups for focused deliberation, before each group presented their consensus to the main body. This was followed by a free sharing session where all attendees were able to make individual addresses to the main body.

This article takes stock of the views and observations put forth by participants during this group discussion. We must view Hongkongers’ struggle for democratic self-determination as an ongoing historical process. To do so, we must keep track of the debates and discussions within this struggle that continue to take place at home or in exile as milestones along this process.

The conclusions reached at the end of the group discussion reflect the participants’ serious evaluation and contextualisation of Hongkonger diasporic organising in the United Kingdom,1 both in relation to the struggles of other oppressed communities and to the future of Hong Kong’s democracy struggle. Participants suggested that Hongkongers should learn from and stand with the struggles of other oppressed communities, and build up their own capability for self-government in exile pending the future liberation of Hong Kong. These suggestions challenge the hegemony of right-wing localist thought that identify Western governments as being the be-all and end-all of Hongkonger organising and advocacy efforts, as reflected in other participants’ focus on “being useful” to the UK government or “gaining foreign support” against the Chinese Communist Party regime. Additionally, participants sought alternatives to the paradigm of “no big stage” which has long held sway over Hongkonger political organising, recognising the need for inter-organisational collaboration that balances centralisation and efficiency with democratic procedure and accountability. In all, the discussion shows the broadening of the political horizons of the Hongkonger diaspora and the creation of opportunities for more democratic, progressive and radical forms and ends of organising.

Whither the diaspora?

Participants discussed their relationship to British society and the British government, and to other oppressed or marginalised communities and their struggles. One participant talked about attending the last Brighton Pride Parade in which they observed the participation of a Ukrainian contingent with a banner saying “Ukrainians Stand With LGBTQ+”. They questioned why there could not be a Hongkonger contingent showing their support for the LGBT cause in a similar way, and said that Hongkongers should not only demand the support of the British public and government for the Hong Kong cause, but also stand with other struggles of marginalised communities. Another participant commented that the plight of Hongkongers in the UK was not as tragic as those of other communities, such as Ukrainians or Afghans, and that the tactic of “sadfishing” (“賣慘”) was no longer viable. One participant responded with a suggestion that Hongkongers should seek to demonstrate their usefulness (“利用价值”) to the British political establishment to ensure further attention and support from the British state.

Participants discussed the forms that further Hongkonger diasporic organising could take as it became more institutionalised. One participant said that the community self-activity and self-organisation of Hongkongers in the UK, encompassing leisure, cultural, educational and civic-political initiatives as well as mutual aid,2 were reminiscent of the functions of the democratically-elected District Councils3 in Hong Kong. They said that such self-activity and self-organisation were how Hongkongers in the UK could learn and gain the capability for self-government in preparation for the return of the diaspora to Hong Kong, after the end of Chinese Communist Party rule and the liberation of Hong Kong. The participant then suggested that there needed to be an organisational structure or platform to facilitate the development of the capability for self-government of Hongkongers in the UK.

One participant said that there should be a Hong Kong constituent assembly or resistance committee, modelled on the World Uyghur Congress or the Central Tibetan Administration,4 comprised of representatives drawn from or elected by Hongkonger organisations in the UK. This participant said that such a body would have the democratic legitimacy to articulate clear demands on behalf of Hongkongers to gain foreign support against the Chinese Communist Party.

In response, one participant argued that most Hongkonger organisations in the UK remained organisationally or democratically immature. They pointed out that many organisations lacked an internal constitution or framework for democratic governance. Therefore, this lack of democratic procedure and accountability would undermine the democratic legitimacy of any centralised Hongkonger platform or congress, of which these organisations would be the constituent members, that claimed to be representative of the Hongkonger diaspora in the UK.

One participant suggested the organisation of a common hub for resources about community organising, incorporating a Community Interest Company, and fundraising in the United Kingdom. There were also suggestions for the formation of a common labour pool of volunteers and a combined list of media and political contacts shared between member organisations. One participant acknowledged the clear desire for a platform for further cooperation and collaboration between Hongkonger organisations in the UK, but that such a platform would emerge organically from links between individual organisations at first.

After “no big stage” and the future of diasporic Hongkonger organising

The inclination towards the centralisation of Hongkonger organising and advocacy efforts in the UK, and the recognition that such centralisation is necessary for the development of Hongkonger civil society in Britain, is notable because it reflects a pushback against the rhetoric of “no big stage” (“冇大台”) that remains ideologically dominant at least within the Hongkonger diaspora in the UK.5

The Steering Committee which organised the UK-Hong Kong Summit was comprised of representatives from numerous Hongkonger organisations in the UK. Towards the end of the Summit, there was substantial discussion about the formation and composition of a new Steering Committee to organise the next Summit, as the current Steering Committee would be disbanded following the conclusion of the Summit. Participants discussed whether positions on the Steering Committee would be filled by the nomination of candidates, the nomination of candidates followed by elections, or the rotation of these positions between candidates nominated by their organisations. There was also discussion on whether the electorate would be on an individual, organisational or hybrid basis, and whether the right to stand for and vote in these elections could and should be extended to the entire Hongkonger diaspora in the UK.

These discussions show that diasporic Hongkongers in the UK are actively searching for a democratic alternative both to authoritarian and unaccountable top-down leadership and to decentralised and fragmented organisation that inhibits the efficacy and coherence of Hongkonger organising efforts. While no resolution as to the organisation of the next Steering Committee was reached at the Summit, it is important to highlight these discussions as vital and beneficial developments towards the maturation of Hongkonger diasporic organising, and emphasise the need for further continuous discussion and organisation around such issues in the future.

The tendency towards the centralisation of Hongkonger organising and advocacy efforts in the UK and the conceptualisation of Hongkonger self-activity and self-organisation in the UK as a dress rehearsal for the future self-government of Hong Kong by Hongkongers (albeit pending the liberation of Hong Kong) can be understood as the beginning of a politics of prefiguration. It consciously aims to create a strong and independent Hongkonger civil society in exile capable not only of decisive intervention in British domestic politics and social issues but also of self-activity and democratic self-government independent of the pre-existing governance framework of the British and Hong Kong states. In this sense, the Hongkonger diaspora in the UK are attempting to create a prototype of the democratic, participatory and self-determining community that Hongkongers had long fought for—be it under Chinese or British sovereignty—and are not yet able to achieve, in Hong Kong.

For a new and necessary politics of solidarity

It was said during the discussion that Hongkongers should stand with other struggles instead of merely demanding that others stand with us. Recently, many mainland Chinese, especially Chinese university and international students, had undergone their political awakening and mobilised for the first time against the Chinese Communist Party regime during the White Paper Movement.

For most of its existence as a polity not under direct CCP rule, and before the imposition of the National Security Law, Hong Kong had been a safe haven and a base for mainland Chinese labour and political organising, and a refuge for dissidents fleeing from the Chinese regime. Even after the commemoration of June 4th had been de-facto banned in Hong Kong, diasporic Hongkongers in the UK continue to commemorate the June 4th Massacre, alongside overseas mainland Chinese, Tibetans and Uyghurs. The nascent Hongkonger civil society in the UK must consider how they can reprise this important role played by Hong Kong’s civil society prior to the NSL—as a shelter and incubator for mainland Chinese political organisation and dissent.

Following the crackdown under the NSL in Hong Kong and the White Paper Movement in mainland China, the potential—and the need—for such solidarity between Hongkonger and mainland Chinese democracy forces has never been stronger. It must be recognised that the precondition for such solidarity is the disavowal of the Sinophobic chauvinism that has long been a cornerstone of Hong Kong right-wing localism and nativism, and the embrace of a new paradigm of struggle that has as its aim the realisation of democracy and self-determination not only for Hongkongers but for mainland Chinese too. To achieve this new and necessary politics of solidarity, mainland Chinese democracy activists must also recognise and affirm their support for the right to democracy and self-determination for Hongkongers, Tibetans, Uyghurs and Taiwanese, up to and including independence—though whether independence post-liberation is desirable or sustainable are separate questions.

How the liberation of Hong Kong could be brought about was a question that remained unanswered when the Summit concluded. The Hongkonger diaspora may lobby for the detwinning, divestment and decoupling of the West from China, but no one seriously believes that these efforts alone are able to bring about the collapse of the CCP regime and the implosion of the Chinese state (“支爆”)6 that is seen, at least within Hongkonger diaspora activist circles in the UK, as the precondition for the liberation of Hong Kong. Some other way of continuing the struggle for democracy and self-determination that does not relegate either Hongkongers or mainland Chinese to the role of passive victims waiting for the end of CCP rule must be sought.

The need for Hongkongers to stand with mainland Chinese democracy forces goes beyond a moral obligation. Against a common enemy, solidarity and cooperation between the Hong Kong and mainland Chinese democracy movements is essential for the survival and victory of either struggle. As constituent parts of a broader democracy movement, left activists in Hong Kong and the Mainland face a unique challenge to intervene strategically in the wider movement while putting forward a principled programme consonant with our anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist and liberatory politics. Only then can an answer to the question of how Hong Kong’s liberation can be brought about, and the role of the Hongkonger diaspora in carrying out this momentous task, be found.


  1. The Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa scheme was launched by the British government on 31 January 2021 in response to the imposition of the National Security Law on Hong Kong. Since the launching of the scheme, over 144,000 Hongkongers have emigrated to the UK, forming a newborn Hongkonger diaspora who continue to be politically active in exile.
  2. Previous participants had discussed their efforts to preserve their Hongkonger identity. One participant talked about how they sold egg waffles from a “Hong Kong” stall at their child’s school’s International Day. They estimated that they had sold waffles to all six hundred students who attended the school. They described this as a low-cost and small-scale initiative that could easily be replicated by Hongkonger parents elsewhere to showcase Hong Kong culture to local school communities. Other participants talked about the importance of continuing to promote Hong Kong culture in the UK, making note of initiatives like the Hong Kong Film Festival, the Festival of Hong Kong and Hong Kong March, as ways to further the integration of Hongkongers into British society and increase the visibility of Hongkongers in the UK as a vibrant cultural and social force. Other initiatives that were reported included: political rallies and demonstrations, usually on significant dates such as June 4th, June 12th and October 1st; the “Global Detwin with China” campaign; film screenings; book clubs; weekly social gatherings; mahjong nights; orientation camps targeting Hongkonger university students in the UK; and ad hoc football matches between Hongkonger teams from different British cities. One participant from Reading HK Runners talked about how they had organised Hongkongers to train for and compete in the Reading Half Marathon as part of a Hongkonger contingent. One participant proposed the organisation of a “Hong Kong Games” event in the UK, inspired by the Commonwealth Games, as a way of building up the martial spirit of Hongkongers.
  3. Although the 18 District Councils of Hong Kong are the only public body with democratic elections on the basis of universal suffrage, they primarily function as consultative bodies with no legislative or executive powers, save for a small budget with which to organise recreational, cultural and community activities, in addition to small-scale infrastructure and environmental maintenance and improvement work.
  4. Representatives from the World Uyghur Congress and the Central Tibetan Administration had been invited to speak at the Summit earlier that day.
  5. “No big stage” arose as a reaction to years of factional infighting among Hong Kong democracy groups following the 2014 Umbrella Movement. “No big stage” emphasises decentralisation and the freedom of individuals and organisations to act however they please in relation to the broader struggle. It entails a rejection of, or at least extreme wariness towards, binding hierarchical organisation and centralised decision-making. This article published by the Chinese University of Hong Kong Student Press reviews the limitations of “no big stage” during the student and protester occupation and police siege of the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 2019.
  6. “支爆” (“Shina-explosion”) is a derogatory and racially-charged term with etymological and ideological roots in the Japanese “Shina”, which bears clear imperialist and racist connotations. “支爆” also reflects a deeply parochial and reactionary outlook that the collapse of central state authority and the Balkanisation of China—presumably by foreign military intervention—is the only plausible scenario for a free and independent Hong Kong.