Freedom and democracy: the voice of two young women and Hong Kong’s empty polling stations
by Gianni Criveller

The testimonies of Agnes Chow and Chow Hang-tung that AsiaNews published in recent days explain the courageous resilience against Beijing’s oppressive system of power, values that too many of China’s "admirers" see as useless today.

Milan (AsiaNews) – AsiaNews recently published two articles that included large excerpts from the testimonies of two young Hong Kong women, activist Agnes Chow, 27, and lawyer Chow Hang-tung, 38. The two pieces are truly extraordinary, and deserve to be read, known, and disseminated.

On the one hand, they show the very high level of moral, civic, and political consciousness of Hong Kong’s best young people; on the other hand, they prove, in a tragically eloquent way, the dark side of Chinese rule in Hong Kong. A story that too many prefer to ignore.

Agnes Chow, the very young 'heroine' of the 2014 umbrella movement, has been in Canada for a few months after being chained, convicted, jailed, and released. She was allowed to go abroad to study, but she decided to break the agreement with the authorities and not return to Hong Kong.

“I continued to live with fear and trepidation, my psychological condition deteriorated, and the year 2023 was the worst for me emotionally and physically,” she explained. “I don't want to be forced to go to mainland China anymore. If this continues, even if I am safe, my body and mind will collapse.”

Chow Hang-tung, a lawyer who received a prize from the Council of European Bars and Law Societies (CCBE), smuggled a statement out of prison. In it, she describes how the language of power can change the meaning of words, and pass off its insidious violations as respect for the law.

“The Party’s power to redefine words and subvert their meaning does not stop at the Chinese border. And while during the Cold War, where one can identify and counter a distinct communist ideology and phraseology, today’s China is instead speaking the same liberal language of rights, democracy and peace,” she wrote.

“And in the city I call home, a national security law unilaterally imposed by Beijing made ‘criminals’ out of many friends of mine, who are scholars, legislators, lawyers, journalists, unionists and activists – namely, law-abiding citizens doing what they have always done, what they consider their duty.”

Even the meaning of the word peace has been subverted because under the party it “is about ensuring submission to the Party’s order through whatever means, not the rejection of war nor hatred.”

Both women underline the importance of two words that seem to be devoid of content to too many people, or even empty and useless: freedom and democracy.

This is also the case with the recent Hong Kong district council elections that saw a historic low turnout (27.5 per cent), a clear message saying that despite repression, grassroot support remains strong behind these voices and expresses itself in the only way it can, by boycotting meaningless elections involving "patriotic" candidates imposed from above.

In November 2019, when pro-democracy candidates won, voter turnout reached 71 per cent. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement was therefore not the expression of a small minority of intellectuals, but had a majority of the people on its side.

From jailed Chow Hang-tung comes a warning: “if we are to abandon the quest for democracy, we shall have no hope of ever building a just international order based on values.”

From Toronto, with words full of emotion and pain, Agnes Chow writes that “Over the past few years I have learned firsthand how precious freedom from fear is.” Indeed, “Freedom is not easy to obtain, and amidst the fear of everyday life, I treasure all the people who have not forgotten me, who care about me, and who love me even more. May we reunite in the near future and hug each other."

Two women, young and brave. But many more women in Hong Kong are subject to prosecution and face imprisonment. Others have been in prison for some time, after a lifetime in trade unions and civil society groups, always with non-violence.

China has many admirers, who evidently regard human rights, freedom, and democracy as unnecessary. The narratives that justify the Chinese regime and its ways claim to be clever and are a bit elitist, because seemingly only the few can truly understand China.

In fact, this appears to us to be a convenient alibi to absolve a totalitarian regime that is too hard to challenge. Looking critically at an oppressive, illiberal system of power that prevents the younger generations from building their own future would be too demanding.

A generation of young people has tried to take their human and political destiny into their own hands. But local and mainland authorities have been completely uninterested in listening to them. One of the saddest and most worrying aspects of this story is precisely the great gap between the emotions and language of young people, like the two Chows, and the language of the police, the judiciary and political power.

Despite the tragedy described by the two young Chows, the story of Hong Kong is almost unknown and completely undervalued. Hong Kong represented great hope for China, Taiwan, Asia, and the whole world.

Christianity has played a significant role in the development of this city, instiling in the conscience of many the evangelical spirit of freedom, which is the foundation of the dignity of daughters and sons of God. Democracy is still, as the popes assert (see Pope Francis's speech on 4 December 2021 in Athens) the form of power most consistent with the Christian imperative to build the city of men.

The resilience of the citizens of Hong Kong, the words from prison of its best leaders, including many believers, and the unforgettable images of millions of citizens on the streets to demand freedom and democracy (images that, alas, seem to belong to a very distant past) show that freedom and democracy are seeds that are seemingly buried, or rather dead. The Gospel, in which we believe, tells us that if the seed does not die, it will not bear fruit. One day, perhaps, freedom will be reborn for the people of Hong Kong and China.