Barrister Chow Hang-tung was thrust into the limelight at the head of the the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China after several of its veteran leaders were jailed for taking part in the 2019 protest movement.
Controversial because it emphasizes building a democratic movement in mainland China rather than on preserving Hong Kong’s promised freedoms, the Alliance is best-known for running the annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park to commemorate the victims of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
That event that has now been banned by the authorities for two years running, with officials citing restrictions on public gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Chow, a Cambridge-educated barrister whose political activism stems from learning about the 1989 student-led movement and its bloody suppression by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), told RFA ahead of the 32nd anniversary on Friday that she still plans to mark the anniversary in public.
Chow, who is currently out on bail pending charges of “illegal assembly” linked to her attendance at last year’s event, has vowed to repeat her defiance of the ban this year.
“Go to Victoria Park and light a candle,” she replied, when asked her plans for Friday.
“I think lighting candles in Victoria Park shows that we haven’t given up,” she said.
Ban violators are jailed
The question of just how many others will consider defying multiple police cordons and a ban on gatherings to do the same won’t be answered until Friday.
Thousands of people defied a similar ban last year, resulting in key activists including Joshua Wong being jailed for several months on “illegal assembly” charges on May 6.
“The democracy movement in Hong Kong actually needs someone who is able to connect with and understand the movement in China,” Chow said. “That way, we can at least support each other if something happens.”
“I feel that I have to hold that position, and keep it going,” she said, in response to criticism that a focus on China is a betrayal of Hong Kong’s unique identity.
She said she won’t be joining the growing numbers of Hong Kong residents who are heading for other shores following the imposition by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) of a draconian national security law banning criticism of the government.
“I don’t think about leaving; I can’t leave,” said Chow, who takes late Nobel peace laureate and political scholar Liu Xiaobo as a role model.
Liu died of late-stage liver cancer in 2017 while still serving an 11-year jail term for “subversion” for his co-authorship of Charter 08, a document calling for sweeping political change in China.
“I’m a bit worried about the democracy movement in Hong Kong,” she said. “It seems that there’s a lot of pressure for it to go underground.”
“I don’t think that’s actually possible; I think it will just accelerate the death of the movement. China’s democratic movement is a case in point,” Chow said.
Repression forges common cause
In March 2021, 47 opposition lawmakers and political activists were arrested and held on remand for “subversion” under the national security law for organizing a democratic primary election in August 2020.
The authorities then postponed a general election slated for September, pushing it back to December 2021 pending an overhaul of electoral rules that puts Beijing firmly in control of electoral outcomes.
Several pro-democracy groups and politicians have already indicated to local media that they will boycott December’s elections, in which new rules dictate that candidates must be vetted by several layers of a China-led bureaucracy before being allowed to run.
Chow believes that the ongoing suppression of opposition lawmakers and political activists since the 2019 protest movement, and increasingly under the national security law, has given activists in China and Hong Kong a common cause.
“Everyone has suddenly woken up, as the full experience of a CCP political crackdown is visited on Hong Kong,” Chow said. “This is precisely why we should stand united.”
“This means unity between not just the different [pro-democracy] factions in Hong Kong, but also between [activists] in Hong Kong and mainland China,” she said.
But she feels herself holding an increasingly unpopular position.
“This is really worrying, not just for Hong Kong, but also for China itself,” she said.
“One obvious problem with having the entire movement underground is that you can’t attract newcomers, because nobody is aware of what you’re doing,” Chow said.
Executive Council member Ronny Tong warned on Thursday that anyone seen in the vicinity of Victoria Park on Friday wearing black, chanting slogans or lighting candles could be arrested for taking part in an “illegal assembly,” even if they break up into smaller groups.
Government broadcaster RTHK quoted police sources as saying that as many as 7,000 officers could be deployed around Victoria Park on June 4.
Reported by Lau Siu Fung, Gigi Lee, Lu Xi and Yip Mong for RFA’s Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.