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Hong Kong

Hong Kong's democracy champion won't give up the fight

US-born lawyer and former Catholic priest John Clancey can still see a ray of light in the dark

Hong Kong's democracy champion won't give up the fight

John Clancey is led away by police after he was arrested under the national security law on Jan. 6 in the largest operation yet against Beijing's critics, deepening a crackdown sweeping the financial hub. (Photo: AFP)

An army of journalists waited in front of Ho, Tse, Wai & Partners law firm office in Hong Kong as American lawyer John J. Clancey was being led to a police car on Jan. 6.

As the 79-year-old champion of human rights and democracy slowly made his way on his crutches with police officers, a reporter asked if he had any message for the people.

“We need to work for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong," Clancey said in a low but clear voice.

Human rights and democracy campaigners around the globe marked Jan. 6 as the blackest day in the history of democracy in Hong Kong when 55 pro-democracy politicians and activists including Clancey were arrested under the draconian national security law introduced by Beijing last year. It was the largest crackdown against the democracy movement in the troubled Chinese territory.

Clancey, chairman of the Asian Human Rights Commission and treasurer of pro-democracy political organization Power for Democracy, was accused of being part of “a plan to paralyze the government and subvert state power.”

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The pro-democracy organization was involved in an unofficial, independently organized vote in July 2020 to choose opposition candidates for a postponed legislative election.

Clancey became the first foreign citizen to be arrested under the law by the pro-Beijing Hong Kong regime of chief executive Carrie Lam. He was released on bail the following day after being detained in a police station.

The incident was a watershed moment in the life of Clancey, a Catholic priest turned human rights lawyer who prefers to call himself a Hong Konger after more than five decades of life and activism in the former British colony.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post on Jan. 13, Clancey said he “was surprised but not terrified” at being in police detention.

“When you do things motivated by love and concern for people, you don’t have to be afraid. I have done nothing that I consider wrong. I’ve always thought that working for democracy and human rights is something good. I have done it out of this motivation of love for people as individuals and love for people indirectly being concerned with the social structures, including political and cultural structures, that affect people’s lives,” he said.

Clancey’s resolute words summarize his long, illustrious life and work motivated by love for a wide range of people, especially disadvantaged and distressed people in Hong Kong and beyond.

From priesthood to rights and democracy 

John Clancey was born in New Jersey in 1941 amid World War II, the eldest of five sons and daughters.

He entered religious formation to become a Maryknoll priest when he was in the third of year of college. In his seven years of priestly formation in the 1960s, he was greatly moved by the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. As he saw a senior priest joining and supporting the movement, he also went out to join parades in New York with African Americans.

Clancey arrived in Hong Kong in 1968 on priestly assignments conferred by the Maryknoll Society. Following his 20-month Cantonese language studies at New Asia College, he served as a parish priest at St. Paul’s Church in Wang Tau Hom and became a student chaplain.

In his first three years, Clancey lived in the Lo Fu Ngam area of Wang Tau Hom (now Lok Fu) that had a huge rubbish dump and a significant concentration of poor people.

Together with urban councilor Yip Xian and Italian missionary Father Mella Franco of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, Clancey fought for resettlement of poor people as well as distributing soup and noodles.

They also operated free clinics, kindergartens and childcare services for children of industrial workers and visited child laborers in their workplaces.

Every year, Clancey organized a student leadership camp where students came in to live with poor people and to work with workers in garment and packaging factories for two weeks as part of a social analysis program. 

In 1973, Bishop Francis Hsu invited Clancey to join the Catholic College Association where he promoted the student movement in Hong Kong and encouraged college students to care for society, justice and the rights of disadvantaged communities. He took great inspiration from Italian left-wing politician and philosopher Antonio Gramsci and the liberation theology then gaining momentum across Latin America.

Clancey soon became well known as a progressive priest when he joined the forefront of a movement that protested against the government decision to cut teachers' salaries. He supported young teachers as they organized a series of strikes. He also pushed for compensation and rehabilitation for those who lost their homes due to construction of a new subway station.

He came into wider public attention when the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in 1984. The international treaty outlined the sovereign and administrative arrangements for Hong Kong when the territory returned to China in 1997.

Clancey was an integral part of a landmark conference that discussed the drafting of the Basic Law and future political system for Hong Kong. Some 89 NGOs and thousands of Hong Kong citizens attended the conference where demands were made for direct elections to form the Legislative Council. Clancey was among the 14 speakers who strongly advocated standard benchmarks for democracy and human rights in the post-colonial city.

“If we don’t plant apple trees, the government will try to plant orange trees in future,” Clancey reportedly said, using an analogy that became the talk of town, which ironically presents the current sorry state of democracy and freedom in Hong Kong.

While Clancey walked with the people of Hong Kong, he also expressed solidarity with democratic and rights movements in various parts of Asia during the 1970s and 1980s.

Clancey joined Catholic groups to visit Japan in 1970s to support farmers who were forcibly evicted when the government planned to build Narita International Airport. He expressed solidary with the anti-airport movement known as the Sanrizuka Struggle.

When in Japan, he also launched a signature campaign to support the release of six clergymen, believers and dissident poet Kim Chi-ha who were imprisoned by the regime of South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee. In retaliation, he was barred from entering South Korea during Park’s tenure.

He also travelled to Vietnam as part of his activism before the communists took over the country in 1975.

As chairman of the Asian Human Rights Commission, he was vocal against the disappearance of Thai human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaijit in 2004 following his public criticism of the government. Clancey visited Thailand and presented a human rights award to Somchai’s widow as a gesture of compassion and solidarity.

‘In perfect love, there is no fear’

In 1985, Clancey left the priesthood and married with an aim to engage more actively in the social and civic life of Hong Kong. Nevertheless, he kept his Catholic faith in everything he did, his friends and colleagues say.

Li Wing-tak, a former member of Hong Kong Legislative Council, described Clancey as a widely respected “democratic veteran.”

Li was the vice-president of foreign affairs at Hong Kong University's Student Union in 1979 and saw Clancey joining small and large social movements. The Church or other religious organizations didn’t appear as strong political forces, but Clancey was adamant.

“In those days there were few people who dared to fight or rally illegally. Clancey was one of the few priests who could do this as he insisted on justice,” Li said.

Clancey joined Ho, Tse, Wai & Partners law firm as a legal apprentice in 1995 and studied law. He started practicing in 1997.

He played an indispensable role in a number of successful legal and political battles involving human rights, such as the hostage case claim against the Philippine government in 2010, the judicial review against a discriminatory small house policy in Hong Kong’s Cheung Chau island in 2015 and a successful appeal on behalf of persecuted Falun Gong practitioners in 2005.

Albert Ho, founder of Ho, Tse, Wai law firm, has known Clancey for nearly three decades and described him as a champion of disadvantaged people.

“Clancey has been always concerned about the disadvantaged. Apart from the cases, he also cares about his clients. In his spare time, he participates in human rights work,” Ho said.

He recalled that Clancey always insisted that injustice to one person should be seen as an issue for everyone.

"Whether a person's rights are defeated, we must treat everyone's rights as being defeated. Society is like the body. When a certain part of the body is harmed, others will feel pain,” Ho said about Clancey’s thoughts on human rights.

While Clancey is disturbed by the slow erosion of Hong Kong’s democracy and freedom, he is not afraid to move as an inspiration for fellow Hong Kongers.

“There’s a beautiful line in one of the epistles of St. John where he says: 'In perfect love there is no fear.' Even though the national security law is there, we still must continue to work for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong,” Clancey said in the SCMP interview.

Despite his advanced age, Clancey aims to walk a long way to continue his battle for human rights and democracy to give people hope and courage.

"I hope people believe that Hong Kong will continue to show up for human rights and democracy. When it is so dark, you can still see a ray of light, and when others see the light, they will be less afraid.”

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