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Decoding China: How Agnes Chow became an enemy of the state

Dang Yuan
December 8, 2023

Agnes Chow is one of Hong Kong's prominent pro-democracy activists. She fled to Canada amid Beijing's tightening clampdown on dissent, and now cannot return.

Hong Kong activist Agnes Chow
Agnes Chow became politically active when she was 17, during the so-called Umbrella Revolution in 2014Image: Vincent Yu/AP Photo/picture alliance

John Lee, Hong Kong's chief executive, served as a police officer in the city for over three decades before entering into politics. During his various stints as a senior official in charge of the territory's security, Lee won the trust of the central government in Beijing and, with its approval, ascended in July 2022 to the post of chief executive, the official title of the head of government of the Chinese Special Administrative Region.   

Lee is now personally devoting his attention to an ongoing investigation into pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow. "Unless she surrenders, she will be hunted for life," he said. The announcement immediately received the backing of Beijing.

"We support every effort by the Hong Kong administration and judiciary to fulfil their legal duties and apprehend the suspect," Wang Wenbin, a Chinese government spokesperson, said on Wednesday. 

Fight for freedom

Chow celebrated her 27th birthday last weekend, not in her hometown of Hong Kong, but in the Canadian city of Toronto.

She has been studying there since September 2023 and recently announced on Instagram that she would not be returning to Hong Kong to face the criminal proceedings.

"Freedom without fear is priceless," the student wrote. "The future is uncertain, but I don't have to worry about being arrested. I can say and do what I want."

Chow is facing numerous criminal proceedings in Hong Kong, on accusations ranging from endangering state security to undermining the principle of "one country, two systems," which was agreed when Hong Kong returned from British to Chinese rule in 1997.

Exiled Hong Kongers cling to hopes for democracy

Under the framework, Hong Kong would keep some autonomy and freedoms, as well as a separate and independent judiciary, for 50 years following the handover. Safeguarding this special political arrangement was Chow's primary concern.

"It seems that the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong were not prepared for this step. They are now trying to use Chow as a precedent to intimidate others," said Sophie Reiß, China expert at the Berlin-based research institute MERICS.

Call for genuine democracy

Chow became politically active when she was 17, during the so-called Umbrella Revolution in 2014.

As a secondary school student representative, she took to the streets protesting a decision by Beijing to allow only candidates vetted by the Chinese government to participate in the city's elections.

The demonstrators called for genuine democracy in Hong Kong by reforming the electoral system and holding direct elections, as stipulated in the territory's Basic Law, even though it does not specify the exact time frame for direct elections. The mass protests, however, failed to get Beijing to change its policy. 

In 2016, a new party called "Demosisto" was founded in Hong Kong by young activists in the pro-democracy camp.

Chow was then 20 years old and became the newly formed outfit's deputy general secretary. Demosisto was not just a protest party, it adopted a wide-ranging program to fight poverty and promote equality, as well as introduce taxes on vacant apartments and a direct vote to elect the chief executive.

At the beginning of 2018, Chow contested in the by-elections for the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo), which is the territory's legislature. The by-elections became necessary because Beijing had expelled six democratically elected representatives for deliberately falsifying the oath of office and thus allegedly not swearing allegiance to China.

Bounty on Hong Kong activists

But authorities disqualified Chow, claiming she wasn't a "patriot" as her party did not "honestly" support Hong Kong's Basic Law and the constitution of the People's Republic, even though she had declared support for the Chinese constitution in writing by signing the electoral application.

Criminal proceedings on the mainland

In 2019, the Hong Kong government wanted to amend the Code of Criminal Procedure and proposed an extradition law that would have allowed Hong Kong criminal suspects to be sent to the mainland for trial.

Hundreds of thousands protested against the bill for months. The authorities clamped down on the demonstrators. Due to increasing police violence against the demonstrations, protest leaders, including Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, called on Hong Kongers to besiege the police headquarters on June 12, 2019.

Several thousand activists responded to the call.

Two months later, Chow was arrested for "incitement to participate in illegal assemblies."

She pleaded guilty. A court in Hong Kong sentenced her to ten months in prison in December 2020.

In total, Chow spent six months and 20 days behind bars. When she left the maximum security prison "Tai Lam Centre for Women" in Hong Kong, she was celebrated like a hero by those waiting for her.

The massive public pressure forced the Hong Kong government to quietly withdraw the proposed extradition bill.

But this success was short-lived.

New security law curbs Hong Kong's freedoms

Not long after the withdrawal of the extradition bill, Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong — a remarkable move by the central government, in apparent violation of the principle of "Hong Kong administration by Hong Kongers."

The national security law criminalizes "secession," "subversion," "collusion with foreign forces to intervene in the city's affairs" as well as "terrorism."

Chow announced her resignation from the Demosisto party on the same day. The outfit was also dissolved at the same time.

"The security law was the decisive step towards ending the idea of one country, two systems," wrote Moritz Rudolf, of the Berlin-based German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). "With the security law, the Chinese leadership is now creating facts. The move comes at the expense of individual liberties and accelerates the spread of socialist legal concepts in Hong Kong."

Hong Kong’s quiet opposition

"The case of Agnes Chow has received an extraordinary response because a young activist has, to a certain extent, run rings around the Chinese government," said China expert Reiß. "She is drawing international attention to her case and also to the situation in Hong Kong under the national security law, which is unlikely to go down well either in Hong Kong or in Beijing."

Quo vadis?

Agnes was arrested by Hong Kong police in August 2020. She was accused of engaging in "hostile activities with foreign powers" using social media platforms. Her call for foreign sanctions against Hong Kong was cited as evidence. All of this is said to have happened after the security law came into force.

She was released on bail in 2021, after spending more than six months in jail, on the condition she check in with police regularly. She also had to post a bail amount equivalent to about €3,000 and a personal guarantee worth €27,000.

However, Chow said in a recent social media post that she will no longer respect the bail conditions, and will remain in Canada. She pointed to Beijing's tightening crackdown on dissent and protesters in Hong Kong as the reason behind her decision. 

Reiß, the China expert, shares Chow's view. "Laws, legal proceedings and personal reprisals are used to put activists under pressure, even those who are abroad," he noted.

"The democracy movement in Hong Kong has largely been suppressed through intimidation, changes to the law and institutional discrimination. At the moment, there is no sign of the situation improving in the foreseeable future."

"Decoding China" is a DW series that examines Chinese positions and arguments on current international issues from a critical German and European perspective.

This article was translated from German.