Asia

Agnes Chow: Hong Kong’s ‘real Mulan’ fighting for democracy

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow has been hailed as a hero by her supporters. But she is in custody awaiting sentencing on Wednesday on charges of unauthorised assembly and faces being jailed. Earlier she spoke to Lam Cho Wai from BBC Chinese about the pressure she feels under.

“I thought I wasn’t stressed – but my body is telling me otherwise,” Ms Chow says.

“Many people say they want to lose weight – but I don’t. I try to live and eat normally – yet I cannot gain any weight.”

She was among a handful of activists and media figures arrested in August under the controversial new security law imposed by Beijing.

The law criminalises any act of secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces. Beijing says it is needed to restore and maintain social stability after months of violent street protests. But critics say it is open to abuse and effectively silences dissent.

She was detained on suspicion of “colluding with foreign forces” but released on bail. If convicted, she could face a sentence of up to life in jail.

However, Ms Chow has not been charged yet. For now, she is in custody awaiting sentencing this week on separate charges of unauthorised assembly related to last year’s protests, to which she has pleaded guilty.

And although she is no stranger to being arrested, she says things have become much more ominous in recent times.

She describes how her house was surrounded for an entire day by plainclothes police in August, before they banged on her door many hours later. An infrared camera had also been installed on a nearby hill.

“They raided my home for two hours. My mother was there. I was so scared and asked myself, ‘Is this the last time I will see my home?'”

Now, Ms Chow says she often has nightmares about being arrested. “I have developed a phobia of doorbells and knocking.”

Goddess of democracy’

Ms Chow is only 24 but ranks as a veteran pro-democracy activist.

As a teenager, she campaigned, alongside fellow activist Joshua Wong, against planned changes to the national curriculum they considered “nationalist brainwashing”, which the government later dropped.

She went on to become a prominent figure in the 2014 Umbrella movement, which saw protesters occupy parts of the city for 79 days, demanding universal suffrage. Two years later, she co-founded pro-democracy lobby group Demosisto, with Mr Wong and former lawmaker Nathan Law.

The group, disbanded the day the national security law was introduced, repeatedly called for sanctions against China and Hong Kong officials.

Now Ms Chow’s supporters have dubbed her “the real Mulan”, in reference to the legendary Chinese heroine who fought to save her family and country. Others have called her the “goddess of democracy”.

“I don’t think I deserve the title,” she says. “But it’s not a bad thing if it helps draw attention to the Hong Kong situation.

“I hope my fame encourages people to hold on to their faith.”

Ms Chow is also proud that her front-line position in the movement has broken down gender stereotypes. “In the past other protesters would tell girls to stay back as they might not be able deal with dangerous clashes,” she says.

“But look at what happened – female protesters took up key roles. They have demonstrated great bravery.”

Ms Chow, who speaks fluent Japanese and loves anime, has amassed a following in Japan, with many taking to social media to call for her release.

Last year, she flew to Tokyo to ask Shinzo Abe’s government to speak out in favour of the pro-democracy protests. But in the wake of the national security law, she says all lobbying has stopped.

“I can no longer say what I could say in the past,” she says.

She says “white terror” – a term referring to the silencing of dissidents – “is hanging over the head of every Hong Konger, including me”.

And with the national security law, “you can say that the government has achieved the effect of shock and awe”.

But she adds: “It doesn’t mean people are living a better life. They are just overwhelmed by fear.”

‘The ultimate sacrifice’

For much of last year, the pro-democracy protesters were engaging in increasingly violent clashes with riot police, who were accused of using excessive force. Pro-Beijing groups also accuse the protesters of attacking security forces and disturbing public order.

After the law was introduced, the protests – already affected by the pandemic – ground to a halt.

Asked if the protesters themselves gambled away the city’s freedoms by pushing too hard last year, Ms Chow replies: “It is very difficult to make a conclusion on the movement.

“It was definitely not a victory because our demands have not been met.”

But even without last year’s protests, the political crackdown would have continued and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kongers would have eventually disappeared, she says.

Many protesters, including Nathan Law, have fled to the UK. But Ms Chow has no plans to leave.

“I understand why many want to go,” she says.

“Hong Kong has become an increasingly hopeless place. Hong Kongers yearn for democracy, freedom… and these still seem very distant.”

But, she adds: “Many social movements face huge obstacles. Many people make sacrifices.

“We shouldn’t let despair and fear dominate our mind. We have to persist to fight for democracy.”

But “how to overcome fear?” she asks.

“If anyone knows a way, please teach me.”

Agnes Chow features on this year’s BBC 100 Women list. BBC 100 Women names 100 influential and inspirational women around the world every year and tells their stories. Follow us on Instagram and Facebook and join the conversation, using#BBC100Women.