As Agnes Chow Is Sentenced to Prison, Revisit What the Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Activist Told FRONTLINE
Pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow, pictured in the February 2020 FRONTLINE documentary "Battle for Hong Kong." Chow was sentenced to 10 months in prison on Dec. 2, 2020, and began serving her sentence on her 24th birthday.
Agnes Chow, a leading voice in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement pushing back against mainland China’s influence, was sentenced to a 10-month prison term on Wednesday, Dec. 2, on charges involving her role in a June 21, 2019, protest that authorities deemed an unauthorized assembly.
Chow, who figured prominently in FRONTLINE’s February 2020 film Battle for Hong Kong, pleaded guilty to the charges in July 2020. Her sentencing, along with that of several other leading pro-democracy activists, was the latest development in what has been described as an ongoing effort to stifle dissent in Hong Kong in the wake of last year’s massive pro-democracy movement.
“Agnes told us that she has been mentally preparing to serve a prison sentence for some time, but she tweeted that she was nervous and scared,” Robin Barnwell and Gesbeen Mohammad, producers of Battle for Hong Kong, wrote to FRONTLINE in an email Dec. 3. “The first full day serving her sentence, today, is her 24th birthday.”
Several U.S. lawmakers criticized the sentencing, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
As Battle for Hong Kong documented, the months-long movement in Hong Kong saw the largest pro-democracy protests on Chinese territory since Tiananmen Square. Protests were sparked by the proposal of a controversial extradition bill early in 2019 that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent for trial in mainland China. At the start, the vast majority of protesters, many of them students and young people, were demonstrating peacefully. But following a crackdown on dissent, in which police officers beat protesters and deployed large amounts of tear gas, Hong Kong descended into chaos.
The protesters said they were fighting for their freedom against the Chinese government, which is due to take complete control of Hong Kong in 2047. “The violence and the suppression from Beijing and the Hong Kong government and also Hong Kong police is getting stronger and stronger,” Chow told FRONTLINE in the film.
Chinese officials, meanwhile, said the protesters were “radicals,” “thugs” and “separatists.” Battle for Hong Kong followed five protesters in the city over several months last year, examining their struggles against what they saw as growing influence from the Communist Party of mainland China.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to China in 1997 and granted special status for 50 years, allowing for far more freedoms than in mainland China. But under the handover, the city’s government would be accountable to the Communist Party and its leader approved by Beijing. Amid growing concerns about China’s influence in Hong Kong, the 2019 extradition bill struck a nerve.
In the film, Chow, who has been described by fans in Japan as Hong Kong’s “goddess of democracy” and who had also been active in the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, gave FRONTLINE a simple explanation of her vision for the city: “We want to choose our future by ourselves.”
The people of Hong Kong, Chow said, deserve “genuine democracy” and “a political system that could kind of force the government to respect and to listen to public opinion.” She was aware of the dangers of pushing for this: “In the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party, all behavior, all social movement fighting for democracy, is over the red line.”
Most of the protesters FRONTLINE followed in the film used aliases and covered their faces, knowing they could face prison time under the Hong Kong authorities’ crackdown; authorities deemed many demonstrations illegal, citing fears of violence. But Chow spoke unmasked and used her real name because she was already known to authorities. In fact, in the below excerpt from Battle for Hong Kong, filmed in September 2019, she described the moment when she was arrested on charges of taking part and inciting others to participate in the June 21 unauthorized assembly.
“If I were sent to prison because of participating in assembly or protest, of course it’s a political prisoner,” she told FRONTLINE.
Chow, who was out on bail when the above clip was filmed, said she was demonstrating peacefully. Others the film followed as conflicts with the authorities intensified took a far more aggressive approach.
“Agnes was protesting peacefully, but under Hong Kong’s harsh laws against unauthorized protests, originating from the British colonial era, she has been incarcerated for ten months,” producers Barnwell and Mohammad wrote to FRONTLINE.
The extradition bill that sparked last year’s protests was eventually withdrawn. But in the months since Battle for Hong Kong aired, the Chinese government has moved to further tighten its grip on the city. Earlier this year, the Chinese government passed a law allowing Beijing to sidestep Hong Kong’s governing body in implementing changes to its legal system and security enforcement — a move many feared signaled the end of Hong Kong’s semi-independence and the civil liberties its people have been afforded. Chow herself was arrested again in August 2020 under the new law; on that charge, she has yet to stand trial.
For more on how the protests in Hong Kong began, how they developed and what’s at stake, watch FRONTLINE’s February 2020 film Battle for Hong Kong, below.