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Politics & Security

INTERVIEW | Hong Kong Activist Agnes Chow Makes a Heart-Wrenching Decision

Hong Kong released Agnes Chow from prison in 2021. She recounts her ordeal since, including a forced propaganda tour and her painful decision to leave the city.

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Agnes Chow during an online interview on December 4. (©Sankei)

Hong Kong democracy activist Agnes Chow has been studying at a graduate school in Canada since September 2023. She disclosed this on December 3 via social media. It was her first public announcement since her release from prison in June 2021. 

Currently residing in Toronto, the Hong Kong activist agreed to an online interview with The Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward on December 4, conversing fluently in Japanese.

Chow gained widespread recognition as the "Goddess of Democracy" in Hong Kong due to her crucial role in the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. Her efforts significantly contributed to global awareness of Hong Kong's diminishing freedom.

Agnes Chow released from a Hong Kong prison in June 2021. (©Kyodo)

Constant Fear

Following the implementation of the National Security Law (NSL) in June 2020, she temporarily stopped posting on X (formerly Twitter). Her final post, however, resonated widely: "Even in despair, we must always think of each other and live stronger." 

In August 2020, Chow was arrested on charges related to violating the NSL. She was later sentenced to 10 months in prison for inciting an unauthorized assembly. After her release in June 2021, she made no public statements except for posting a black square on Instagram.

Chow has since revealed that she lived in constant fear of arrest and was diagnosed with panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression.

In 2023, Chow decided that she would rather study abroad than not be able to do anything in Hong Kong. She wanted to study at a Canadian graduate school, but her passport had been confiscated by the authorities.

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Forced Propaganda Tour

To reclaim her passport, Chow had to submit a written pledge to the National Security Department of the Hong Kong police force, promising never to participate in political activities again. On top of that, she was required to go on a propaganda tour in Shenzhen, mainland China, accompanied by national security officers.

Complying with these conditions, Chow was taken to Shenzhen in August under the watch of five national security officers. She was forced to attend an exhibition showcasing the achievements of the Chinese Communist Party and its past leaders. Following that, she was required to write a "letter of gratitude" to the police for allowing her to "understand the great development of my motherland."

In her December Instagram post, Chow wrote: "I probably won't go back [to Hong Kong] for the rest of my life." The statement has been widely interpreted as an announcement of her self-imposed exile.

Agnes Chow (left) and Joshua Wong, former leaders of the Umbrella Movement, respond to reporters' questions after being released on bail in August 2019, Hong Kong. (©Kyodo)

Excerpts of the interview follow.

What is the current situation in Hong Kong?

Under the Hong Kong National Security Law, one cannot criticize the government. Only pro-Beijing candidates can run in elections. Hong Kong is completely controlled by China, and freedom of speech and human rights are not guaranteed.

What led you to announce your departure from Hong Kong?

I wanted to share my experiences of the past three years, especially about being taken to the Chinese mainland. I believe that doing so would help raise global awareness about Hong Kong's current situation.

Why did you decide not to return to Hong Kong?

I feared that if I returned to Hong Kong, I might not be able to come back to Canada. The police might impose new conditions for my departure, and I never want to go to mainland China again. Many Hong Kong residents who return from abroad have also been arrested at the airport.

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I haven't decided whether to resume democracy activism. It has been reported that China's secret police are stationed in Canada. I'm very worried about my safety, even when I'm abroad.

Will you never return to Hong Kong?

I think so. But if possible, I would like to return to Hong Kong someday and live freely. After all, Hong Kong is my home.

How did the authorities force you to sign the pledge?

I was surrounded by four or five police officers at the police station and felt nothing but fear. If I refused, I thought might get arrested or not get my passport back. It's difficult to voice your objections at a police station.

Agnes Chow during an interview in Hong Kong in January 2020. (©Sankei by Kinya Fujimoto)

Did you consider studying in Japan?

I chose where to go simply based on the university's reputation and what I wanted to study. But I also wanted to study in an English-speaking country. 

I am currently staying [in Canada] on a student visa, but I am very concerned about my safety. That is why I haven't disclosed the name of the university or my field of study. Right now, I just want to focus on my graduate studies.

What are your dreams for the future?

I want to live freely. Many people might take freedom for granted. But for me, freedom is elusive and precious. I suffered a lot over the past three years, unable to do anything.

The Story of a Hong Kong Activist

A fan of manga and Japanese idol groups, Chow became fluent in the language through self-guided learning. She has championed Hong Kong's freedom in Japan by holding press conferences and tweeting in Japanese.

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On social media, Chow revealed that a song repeatedly came to mind while she was detained. It was the song "Fukyowaon" ("Discord") by the Japanese idol group Keyakizaka46. Part of its lyrics go: "I'll continue my resistance until the very end."

Beijing Condemns Chow

Wang Wenbin, the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, condemned Chow in a December 4 press conference.

He stated, "The Hong Kong police has responded to this and condemned her irresponsible behaviors that blatantly challenge law and order. China is a country with the rule of law and Hong Kong is a law-based society where residents' lawful rights and interests are fully protected. That being said, no one is entitled to extrajudicial privileges and all offenders shall be brought to justice."

Wang Wenbin, China's foreign ministry spokesperson. (©Kyodo)

Chow had bought an airline ticket to return to Hong Kong at the end of December because she was obligated to report to the police. However, she ultimately decided not to go back, explaining, "I considered the situation in Hong Kong and my safety and overall well-being. But it was a very difficult decision."

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(Read the article in Japanese.)

Interviewed by: Kinya Fujimoto and Tomo Kuwamura, The Sankei Shimbun

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