Some admire Chow Hang-tung as an outstandingly courageous woman, naming her “the real daughter of Hong Kong”. Others view her as a troublemaker, potentially breaking the National Security Law in Hong Kong.
The rest, those who claim to be indifferent to politics, after reading the media reports on Chow’s biography cannot help sighing, “what a pity! With such a clever mind!”. Upon reading her transition from being a top student, a Cambridge graduate, and a barrister, to being a prisoner, parents turn to their kids: “you better watch out, you don’t want to become another Chow Hang-tung.”
However, if more young people were as sharp-witted and courageous as Chow, the world would be filled with far less fear and much more joy.
From Hong Kong to Cambridge to China: an unusual journey
Born in 1985, Chow grew up in Hong Kong in a middle-class family. Her parents were concerned about China’s democratic movement and brought her to the candlelight vigils in Victoria Park on 4 June — a large-scale memorial to mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Beijing, in 1989. Apart from the few years she was studying abroad, Chow has participated in this candlelight vigil every year since.
From a young age, Chow was a top student and gained admission to the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge University as an outstanding student from Hong Kong.
If more young people were equipped with Chow’s sharp-wittedness and her courage, the world would be filled with far less fear and much more joy.
As Chow was studying for her doctorate, looking at earthquakes, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake killed over 69,000 people. Despite wanting to use her expertise to help, the Chinese government removed the data collection stations on the Qinghai Plateau shortly after the earthquake for political reasons and Chow couldn’t proceed with her research.
She realised then that the problem for China was not the lack of scientific research, but its defective political system. Upon this realisation, she discovered that her passion was to bring change to China. She immediately gave up her studies and returned to Hong Kong, where she found a job in a labour organisation which helped mainland Chinese workers safeguard their rights.
Chow discovered that her passion was to bring change to China.
While she was working, she became aware of how little she knew of the country’s legal system and was surprised by the unfair rulings coming from judges despite their claim that China respected the rule of law. Therefore, she decided to find out for herself and became a barrister in 2016.
©Photo: Tang/ Wikimedia
Commitment to the human rights movement
Chow joined the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (HKA) as a volunteer in 2010, and was elected as its vice-chairperson in 2015. She once said that she had meant to withdraw from the HKA earlier, as she wanted to devote more time to the rights defence movement in China and she did not fully agree with HKA’s operation, believing that it was out of touch with the actual situation in China. However, after the Umbrella Movement in 2014, very few people were willing to join the HKA, let alone become an executive committee member or vice-chair. Chow found it difficult to leave and could not bear to see an organisation of such great significance to the people of Hong Kong be deserted.
Chow wanted to devote more time to the rights defence movement in China
But maybe the most decisive reason for her to stay in Hong Kong was that, since 2019, the Chinese government had not allowed her to enter mainland China. She could neither visit her then-boyfriend, now her fiancé Ye Du, a well-known civil rights activist and dissident writer in China, nor could she continue her work in defence of human rights on the ground there. This was perhaps a blessing in disguise. She escaped the fate of many activists in China, such as being forcibly disappeared (like Gao Zhisheng), imprisoned and tortured (like Zhang Zhan).
However, the situation in Hong Kong was worsening rapidly. In 2020, 12 young Hong Kongers were intercepted by the Chinese coastguards while they were allegedly heading to Taiwan to seek asylum. Almost all the passengers were facing charges relating to the 2019 Anti-extradition Bill Amendment protests. They were detained in Shenzhen, the mainland city bordering Hong Kong and faced various charges.
Though she could not enter China to help them personally, Chow joined the group #Save12HKYouths with other civil society groups in Hong Kong, to monitor and report on the situation of the twelve detainees. As someone familiar with China’s legal system, Chow helped voice out the unfair judicial process they encountered and the case gained international attention.
HKA continued to face crackdowns and by the eve of 4 June 2021, both its chairperson Lee Cheuk-yan and vice-chair Albert Ho were imprisoned. Chow was determined to keep the Hong Kong people’s promise to the relatives of the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre. She would not retreat at the most difficult time for the organisation.
Chow helped voice out the unfair judicial process and the case gained international attention.
Many Hong Kongers admire Chow for her fearlessness, without knowing that she learned to deal with the authoritarian regime from working in China over the years. To her, the mass arrest of human rights lawyers starting from 9 July 2015, the ongoing crackdowns on and torture of rights defenders and human rights lawyers were nothing new, they were an everyday reality. “Our dear friends Xu Zhiyong, Li Qiaochu, Zhen Jianghua were arrested,” said Chow. “I am aware of the reality and know what I should do. These experiences gave me courage.” Her courage extends to her willingness to be jailed.
Courageous while facing judges
In December 2021, Chow was charged for “incitement to knowingly take part in an unauthorised assembly” and for “participating” in the same assembly, receiving sentences of 12 months and 6 months
respectively, for lighting a candle in Victoria Park in Hong Kong on 4 June 2020.
She later announced that she would not appeal because “what should be said [had] been said, and the records that should be kept are also kept. The public knows how to tell right from wrong,” and she does not need the authorities’ approval.
This came after a previous arrest on the morning of 4 June 2021, when Chow was “preventatively arrested” and charged with “inciting others to participate in an unauthorised assembly”. On 4 January 2022, magistrate Amy Chan Wai-mun convicted and sentenced Chow to another 15 months in prison (with five served concurrently). In total, Chow is serving 22 months for the two 4 June candlelight vigils, a remarkably long sentence for “allegedly” encouraging people to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen Massacre.
At the same time, Chow now faces the charge of “inciting subversion of State power”, together with Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho, the chair and vice-chair of HKA. The indictment states that they were suspected of inciting others to subvert the Chinese regime in Hong Kong between 1 July 2020 and 8 September 2021.
In addition, Chow and four other executive committee members of the HKA were charged with “not complying with the requirement to provide information” under Article 43 of the National Security Law of Hong Kong, when the police accused HKA of being backed by “foreign agents” and demanded it to provide information for the police investigation. Chow and the members of HKA turned down this request. Both cases are arraigned to be reviewed before trial in January 2022.
Chow has been detained by the National Security Department of the Hong Kong Police since 8 September 2021, and all her applications for bail have been refused.
Four United Nations human rights experts issued a statement on 12 October raising concerns about the fairness of trials under the National Security Law, citing Chow’s case in particular.
They called out Peter Law Tak-chuen, the judge who twice denied Chow bail on the grounds that she would continue to threaten national security if released and refused to lift media reporting restrictions, stating that it was not in the interest of justice for the hearing to be reported, both of which led to concerns over the fairness of the trial.
The human rights experts urged the Hong Kong government to repeal and independently review the National Security Law to ensure it is compatible with both international law and human rights standards.
Four United Nations human rights experts raised concerns about the fairness of trials under the National Security Law.
Chow once said that the prison conditions in Hong Kong are far better than in China and even considered herself a “bourgeois” compared to other prisoners, with her friends sending her supplies. Although the Correctional Service officers would return the parcels to her friends after reviewing them, she still feels she is much luckier than others. The food she misses terribly is Sichuanese hotpot, which she cannot get in prison. Thanks to independent journalists and her friends who have reported about her cases and visited her in prison, the outside world has been able to know of Chow’s situation and her defence.
Chow’s defence in Court
In her defence statement, Chow wrote, “it is obvious that all my charges are related to the HKA and the [commemoration of the] Tiananmen Massacre. The accusations add up and multiply, a vivid reflection of what the regime is planning to do: namely, step by step, suppress and destroy our memory of the [Tiananmen] Massacre.”
As a barrister, Chow has fought many civil rights lawsuits and is well aware that what she faces are all political prosecutions.
Between 1989 and 2019, Hong Kong was the only Chinese city where citizens could dress in black, carry flowers and candles on 4 June without worrying they might be detained.
However, China is becoming impatient with and fearful of Hong Kongers’ freedom. Using the National Security Law and abusing Hong Kong’s legal system, the Chinese government is getting rid of dissidents and disbanding the HKA, an organisation which dares to call it a murderer, sending a warning to all Hong Kongers to end public mourning of the Tiananmen Massacre in Hong Kong.
Between 1989 and 2019, Hong Kong was the only Chinese city where citizens could (..) light candles on 4 June without worrying they would be detained.
©Photo: Tong / Wikimedia
Therefore, authorities, helped by the COVID-19 pandemic, came up with a perfect plot. Despite Hong Kong’s low incidence of COVID-19 cases and with people having mostly resumed their normal life, the police still denied HKA’s application to stage the annual candlelight vigil in 2020 and 2021.
In response to this decision, HKA announced the cancellation of the candlelight vigil in Victoria Park, but urged people to light candles and observe a moment of silence, individually or online, wherever they were.
As HKA’s vice-chair and someone who joined the Victoria Park vigils each year, Chow decided to light her candle in Victoria Park on her own. Though HKA’s vigil did not take place, the prosecution still claimed that, as Chow was in Victoria Park in 2020 and planned to go there in 2021, she was “inciting others” to go there, and thus should be preventatively detained. Her personal liberty and freedom of assembly was entirely disregarded. In a further step, the police forced HKA to disband on 25 September 2021.
Though the evidence is weak and the logic of her arrest is absent, the Department of Justice and the legal system as a whole are now in the hands of the Office for Safeguarding National Security. Many defendants know that the courtrooms are no longer a place for genuine legal debates and for seeking justice. Instead they choose to plead guilty in the hope of being given a more lenient sentence — reducing the suffering, duration and cost of lengthy trials.
However, Chow refused to play along. Despite her lack of of access to the internet and without access to the reference documents she needed, she still wrote many astonishing defence statements and commentaries, such as this commentary on the charges HKA members are facing:
“All the smearing and stigmatisation engineered in the name of the law are inherently political. The [problematic] logic of the laws and the [strange] calculation of sentences force us to remain silent, to cooperate and to plead guilty. Hence the law tamed resistance and opened a new wide platform for the powerful to present their narratives. In that case, only their version of ‘facts’ can stand and last no matter whether it can be proved in a court of law or not (in political cases, proof of innocence is almost certainly required), and therefore their narrative will become ‘the only truth’.”
For Chow, pleading guilty is a hurdle she cannot overcome:
“I can’t on one hand admit no wrong and say that the government is misinterpreting and abusing the law, and on the other hand plead guilty, i.e. admitting that I am guilty because the law is what they say it is […] You can force me to do bitter manual tasks — like cleaning toilets — and eat smelly porridge, but you can’t force me to speak contrary to my mind. You can even force me to shut up, but you can’t force me to utter that which I do not believe.”
Chow is a staunch fighter. Her friends worry about her fate, saying the price she pays is too high or even calling her “unfortunate Tung” – a wordplay on “Hang”, which in Cantonese means “fortunate”. Nevertheless, she still faces her destiny with laughter.
In the face of such absurd accusations and a sham legal system, laughing while defending oneself is more inspiring than remaining silent or delivering a tearful confession.
“You can force me to shut up but you can’t force me to utter that which I do not believe,” Chow said.
Many Hong Kongers are grateful that in such a difficult time, Chow still demonstrates how not to be overwhelmed by fear and how not to give up their rights without a fight. She shows that everyone should be able to defend themselves and they do not need the authorities to approve of their story.
Let’s hope that, in the near future, Chow’s defence statements and commentaries will be published and circulated freely to tell everyone that, during the darkest time of Hong Kong’s judicial history, there are still people who insist on standing up and speaking out.
Read more stories in our series of Chinese lawyers’ profiles here.
Everyone should be able to defend themselves and they do not need the authorities approve of their story.
This story was written by The 29 Principles. Read more stories in our series of Chinese lawyers’ profiles here.
- HKA was an organisation established in Hong Kong shortly before the Tiananmen Massacre on 4 June 1989. The organisation’s main goals were the rehabilitation of the pro-democracy movement and accountability for the massacre. Between 1990 and 2019, HKA held a candlelight vigil on 4 June every year in Victoria Park, on Hong Kong Island, which was well attended and widely reported. Due to its stance, the Chinese government considers it subversive and it was forced to disband in 2021.