While Persecution Spreads, So Does Hope: An Interview With Hang Tung Chow

Committed activist and freedom fighter, Hang Tung Chow, continues her inspiring, protest against anti-democratic Chinese Rule. Neither prison bars, or overwhelming odds, have stopped Ms. Chow from her relentless pursuit of civil and human rights in China. From her days as a student activist to her current views and contributions as an attorney and volunteer for the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, we are privileged to present a recent interview she gave the Liberty, in which her grace and faith compels action and hope.



Hang Tung Chow

Hang Tung Chow

Hang Tung Chow received her undergraduate education at the University of Cambridge in England, her Law Degree from Manchester Metropolitan University (with Distinction) and furthered her education in Law at the University of Hong Kong. She is the Vice-President of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (HK Alliance). She is also an Executive Committee member of Amnesty International Hong Kong and Labour Action China, a member of the Tiananmen Mothers Campaign, a public speaker, and a conservationist. Born and raised in Hong Kong, Ms. Chow is currently a barrister at Harcourt Chambers. She continues to promote human rights in China through advocacy, organizing and protest, while still making time for hiking and travelling.

Interviewer: Hanako Cho

Interviewer: Recently, Joshua Wong was sentenced to six months in prison. I think the situation is becoming very, very severe in Hong Kong. Could you tell me a little bit about the current situation of this kind of erosion of liberty and freedom in Hong Kong?

Hang Tung Chow: Right. You see, it’s not just Joshua Wong who has been sentenced recently. There were actually 16 young people, including Joshua, that had been sentenced to about 4 to 13 months in prison for mainly holding protests. And I would say that the people of Hong Kong are not that alert to the possibility of a jail sentence for just protesting. Because the related offenses have been in our law for quite a long time, and, mostly, people who offend those public — we call them public order offenses — they would just be sentenced to, say, community service or other non-custodian sentences. And just all of a sudden, the Court of Appeal said that, “While this is a very serious offense, it disrupts the public order.” It was an unhealthy win, an unhealthy trend that was led by this younger set, and so that’s why they had to give them that very heavy current sentence. And this shocked all of Hong Kong. These are people who lead a protest because of their love for Hong Kong. And they’re concerned about what is happening in society and certainly, and this should be a reason for the judge to be more lenient to them, more understanding. But no. The judge thought that this was a reason for giving them a heavy sentence to deter such idealistic protests. People are very angry. And a lot of people actually lost hope in the judiciary and the rule of law as well. And that is a very unwanted and unexpected side effect that — actually, in Hong Kong, we never really had true democracy. We don’t really have legislature. The administration is basically handpicked by Beijing. And the pillar of that is the judiciary, the courts. And now, people are losing hope in that aspect as well. So, the whole atmosphere in Hong Kong is really quite gloomy because of this new development. People are just losing hope in all pillars of the institution.



Interviewer: So, what was the purpose of this sentence?

Hang Tung Chow: Well, the court said very clearly that they want to deter just type of disruptive behavior. They thought that protesting and speaking out to defend your rights and your freedom was not acceptable in an orderly society. And I would think it’s based on a very narrow understanding of what the law is. They just said, “Well, the law says you cannot protest without permission from the police. You cannot cause any disruption to public order, and that’s why, you offend the law, you go to prison.” And this is a very legalistic, very technical view of the law, and that is what this judgment is trying to uphold. So, you have to obey the law whatever that is. No one went behind the law to see whether it was fair or doing justice. As long as the word is there, you have to obey it to the letter. And that’s the message that they want to send out.



Interviewer: Some people say that this is one of the ways to discredit his candidacy when he runs for the office next time. Does this sound true to you?

Hang Tung Chow: So far, I wouldn’t say the judges themselves have that motive. I’m not sure about people who are pushing for the prosecution of that appeal. Because it’s actually an appeal for sentence. Those people have already served the sentence of community service. And the Department of Justice actually pushed this appeal to have them hand down heavier sentences. But of course, the Department of Justice cannot decide what the judge will eventually hand down. And I still don’t believe that the judges themselves are politically motivated. They are conservative. They are a bit old-fashioned in how they understand the law, but I wouldn’t say that they have this political motivation of stopping them from running for office. But as to what’s the motive behind the Department of Justice is in pushing this appeal, I cannot say. The Secretary of Justice is a court-appointed position. And that is the funny part in this whole scenario: even if the court is independent, they cannot decide which case will go to court, which case will be prosecuted. And that decision is made by a political official. That may be politically motivated. That’s the dangerous game that they’re playing. In that sense, they’re damaging their reputation and the culpability of the judiciary because the decision is not taken on the court side, it’s actually taken on the prosecution side.



Interviewer: So, you mean the independence of the judiciary is being lost?

Hang Tung Chow: From this judgement, no. I wouldn’t necessarily say that the judges are politically motivated. But they are forced to handle a lot of hand-picked cases. And not picked by them. The judges cannot decide what cases will go before them. It’s someone else. And which cases do go to them may be politically motivated, I would say. Because, say, for the Joshua Wong case about Occupy Central, I mean there are pressures on both sides, violence on both sides, the police and the protesters. And when the protesters got beaten up by police, the Department of Justice did not choose to appeal their sentence. The police even supported their appeal against reducing their sentence. And when the prosecution is against the protester, the government is behind this whole prosecution in pushing for heavier sentences. So, you see that the imbalance is from that side. And the court, in a sense, is quite passive. They have to handle whatever that is filed in the court. And when they are only faced with cases targeting protesters, that’s what the people will see. The court is just punishing protesters. It doesn’t mean that the judges, themselves, are necessarily biased. But the cases that come before them are.



Interviewer: Okay. I’d like to ask you about the autonomy of the University. Recently, one of the lawmakers proposed that Benny Tai should be ousted from Hong Kong University. Why is this kind of thing happening right now? I think the autonomy of the University should be respected.

Hang Tung Chow: The lawmakers are not perfect guardians. About half of the Hong Konger’s are on the pro-Beijing side, and you can understand their motivation. And this attack on the University had been here for a long time. It’s not just this attack. The University always serves as a hot bed of activism. The student activism is always, always, one of the main motivators of a change in society. And the government is very understandably wary about that. And they use all their cronies, all their other supporters, all the people who have influence to try to put pressure on the universities. And even though academics is a very respectable principle, in reality, in Hong Kong, the independence of the University is not that well protected.



Interviewer: Carrie Lam, right now.

Hang Tung Chow: For all the universities under our law, the Chief Executive is has the ultimate control on who’s going to be on the Board of the University, who’s going to make the decisions for the University. So, they are not in fact independent even though people give lip service to that phrase.

They are set in the law.

Interviewer: Set in the law, I see.

Hang Tung Chow: Yeah. So they’re set in the law and the student body can always called for a reform of that system, but of course, no one’s going to change that.

So structurally it’s designed from the beginning. I mean, the design of the university structure was not independent from the beginning.



Interviewer: With regards to freedom of speech, Causeway Bay Bookstore Manager, Mr. Lam, said, “There is crisis in the freedom of speech in Hong Kong.” Could you illustrate the crisis of freedom of speech in Hong Kong? He is very much concerned about the situation.

Hang Tung Chow: The bookstore case is quite different. It’s actually a direct attack from officials of mainland China, that they come and arrest people and they also arrest people who are close to China. And actually, it’s not just the bookstore case. Just yesterday, you may have heard about the trial of Lee Ming-cheh, the Taiwan NGO worker. Have you heard about that? They have a very public show trial of this Taiwanese NGO worker who went to China and was arrested there, and who was sentenced for subverting the government. He’s a general NGO worker in Taiwan. But he makes a lot of public talks online about democracy, about activism, and he wants to bring democracy to China. And so, they had this show trial yesterday. And the evidence saying that he was subverting the government were his posts on Facebook, on Twitter, and on various online social media. So, supposedly he is a Taiwanese. He was in Taiwan. He should be free to say whatever he likes on Facebook. But no, when he traveled to China, he got arrested for what he said on Facebook outside China. So, it’s all the same mind. And in yesterday’s trial, the prosecutor publicly said that, “No matter you are Taiwanese, Hong Konger, or come from somewhere else, you cannot say things that damage our country without punishment. And this case illustrated that.” That’s the stance.

So, Hong Kong people cannot be excused from accusations just by staying in Hong Kong, because by Chinese logic, they are all violating the law, even subverting the government. What Lee Ming-cheh had been posting on Facebook, including posts about Liu Xiaobo, and actually about Tiananmen Massacre. These are things that people in Hong Kong talk about all the time. And now, this is the evidence for subversion of the country. So, all these examples, including the bookstore case, including the Lee Ming-cheh case, are having a very chilling effect that you are not safe even though you are in Hong Kong, even though you’ve never traveled to China. The bookstore case says that they can come and arrest you. And if you do have families inside China, if you do go traveling inside China, you are under this threat of arrest any time because they can say you violated the law by posting online.



Interviewer: So, you may get arrested by the Chinese government when you travel to mainland China, right?

Hang Tung Chow: That was what happened to Lee Ming-cheh, yeah.

Interviewer: After Carrie Lam got elected, is the situation becoming worse and worse?

Hang Tung Chow: I think it’s a bit too soon to say, yet. Only she has been in position for…….

Interviewer: Only two months.

Hang Tung Chow: Two months. It’s not very clear yet because the case began before she came into power.



Interviewer: Oh, I see.

Hang Tung Chow: Even though we all think that she had the power to stop it if she wanted to, she just let it go on. So, you can say she didn’t improve the situation, but it’s difficult to say whether she would permit more similar prosecution, or she would let it go. I think it’s still a bit early to say at this stage. And a lot of what happens now is still sort of left over from the previous administration.

Interviewer: But do you think she is now successful in handling the frustration of the Hong Kong people?

Hang Tung Chow: No. I don’t see any effective move or action from her yet. I mean, see how she handled this Joshua Wong and the other young professor case, she didn’t really give people confidence that well. She says she’s going to have this conversation with the different factions. But again, we haven’t seen any concrete action or even any words spoken in support of this protester. So I’m not too hopeful, that’s to say.



Interviewer: I see. You said that you are influencing Chinese people coming from the mainland by inviting them to June 4th’s museum, or right now, you may have a chance to invite them to the commemoration to Liu Xiaobo. When you had a commemoration of Liu Xiaobo after his passing, what kind of influence did you have with those coming from the mainland?

Hang Tung Chow: I remember that, actually, on the day — it was either the day after Liu Xiaobo’s passing or — either on the day or the day after, and I did meet a Chinese friend coming from mainland China to attend our commemoration, and he was so touched. He said he cannot do this thing inside China. But he said he came to Hong Kong, and he can actually vent his grief. And in China, there’s no one to talk to. I mean, he knows all about Liu Xiaobo. He knows all about all the crackdowns, all the human rights oppression, but there was no one that he safely shares his feelings with. And when he came here, he saw all this support, he saw all these people writing postcards for Liu Xiaobo and Liu Xia. And it gave him strength. And that was not the end of the story. The very brave surprising truth was that on the seventh day of Liu Xiaobo’s passing, we had a big commemoration in Hong Kong and actually, in Guangzhou, that was the commemoration, as well. And that guy I met in Hong Kong, he was there in Guangzhou by the seaside and he was trying to take the same action. After he saw the inspiration in Hong Kong, he tried to do the same in China. And just last week, he got arrested for that.



Interviewer: He got arrested for.

Hang Tung Chow: For commemorating Liu Xiaobo, yes. Yes. He was not the first one. Actually, a lot of people who were in that commemoration got arrested. About seven or eight got arrested.

Interviewer: Oh, yeah. I heard the news that–

Hang Tung Chow: And he was the latest one. So, in a sense, well, we are glad that what we did in Hong Kong gave them courage, but we are also worried about the situation. Well, by their action, they face the risk of a jail sentence. But I mean, they understood the risk and they still did it.



Interviewer: It seems that the Chinese government is trying to eliminate and remove any trace of Liu Xiaobo’s at all cost.

Hang Tung Chow: Well, but I will say it depends on us, on the civil society, to see if they can be successful. It’s a fight on both sides. They’re trying to erase his memory and we have to push back and preserve the memory. So, well, we’ll see who wins the battle, but we cannot just stop fighting.

Interviewer: Why do you think that China’s government tried to remove all traces of Liu Xiaobo?

Hang Tung Chow: He’s a powerful rallying cry. You see that people will risk jail sentences to stand up for him even though he’s already passed away. They still go out to make very public commemorations. And he’s this rallying call for people who are fighting for democracy and freedom in China. And actually, it’s a very practical thing. For every movement, you still need a central focusing point, and Liu Xiaobo is that focusing point. And, for example, if they allow him to have his grave in China, that place will probably become some sort of a focus for everyone every year during the time of his passing. And the Chinese government would not want that to happen. They would not want people who have similar thinking, who want freedom and democracy, to gather together and become a power to threaten them. And Liu Xiaobo can be that catalyst, but of course, it’s very sad that he passed away. But I still see many young people in China still trying to pass on the torch and to keep up the fight.



Interviewer: You are very young, and you didn’t have any connection with Liu Xiaobo, but on Facebook you are using Liu Xiaobo’s picture on that top page. Right? Why can you relate to Liu Xiaobo so much?

Hang Tung Chow: All right. I see that we are fighting the same fights. Well, we are fighting for democracy in Hong Kong or in China; it is actually the same fight and we have to face the same opponent basically. In fighting for democracy in Hong Kong, we are not just trying to fight. It’s the puppet master behind him. It’s the Communist Party behind him that is our real enemy. And for Liu Xiaobo, it’s the same thing. Not just Liu Xiaobo and many others in China who are in this movement together. And for Liu Xiaobo, he sacrificed so much. I mean, he used to be a very famous professor and had a lot of students and followers. And because of his standing up for democracy and truth he got ousted from the university, he got banished from the public world. His articles were never published and he was repeatedly sent to jail. And it’s an inspirational story I would say. I mean, how much one can sacrifice in this fight for democracy? And it’s also his attitude, as well.

I mean, I was just about to say his clarity of thoughts. He’s very, very determined in his stance on non-violence. And even though, with all this repression that he’s been facing, all these personal tragedies he’s been facing, he’s so steadfast in saying that he has no enemy. He has no hatred, even though all these years that were basically very unfair and unjustified in their treatment of him. And he’s so clear that his enemy is the system, is the institution. It’s not an individual. It’s not hatred that motivates him in his fight. It’s love. Love for his countryman. Love for the people. And I think that kind of inspiration is, to me, very touching and very inspiring. It’s the sort of thinking that I feel I can follow. I mean, in the recent years we see a lot of anger. A lot of hatred. Even among people who are fighting for freedom and democracy. People attack each other, people attack the other side and try to turn them into villains and make personal attacks on them. And that is something that Liu Xiaobo had always been against. And I think this sort of voice is very much needed in our movement as well. And it’s rare, that sort of clarity of thought and this sort of love for the people. Yeah. So that’s why that we feel this connection and this respect for him.



Interviewer: Okay. Do young people like you sympathize with him, Liu Xiaobo?

Hang Tung Chow: I wouldn’t say all. As you can see in the recent protests in Hong Kong, right, the Fishball Revolution and all that, a lot of people do view the police as their enemy. And I wouldn’t say I blame them. When you see your friends being beaten up by the police, being arrested, being sentenced, of course you feel anger. And it’s also likely that you feel hatred for the people who make them suffer. And it takes a very big heart to put down that hatred and anger and choose to think reasonably, “What is the best way out of this situation that we are facing?” I wouldn’t say it is representative of all young people, but I would want to be part of the people that try to promote this view and try to disperse this anger and hatred for people who are not like you. I mean, this is not just about the fight for democracy as well. It’s actually what you see in the world recently, all this right-wing sentiment that’s been rising, people hating each other as long as they are from different groups. It’s the same logic that we still have to fight against. And it’s this logic that Liu Xiaobo has been standing against for his entire life.



Interviewer: You seem to be initiating a gathering to commemorate Liu Xiaobo. Could you share with me what you did for commemorating Liu Xiaobo in Hong Kong?

Hang Tung Chow: We have been doing a lot of things in the months since his passing. We had a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong. We also had a seaside memorial for him, because his ashes were spread into the sea. So, we used that as a symbol of him to support him. And also after his passing we have been issuing joint statements in support of Liu Xia and the others who were arrested for commemorating him in China. And there was also this call for the international community to really look into the cause of his death. And that point has not been very much talked about. But we think it’s necessary to see what really happened. From the day they released the news that he had terminal cancer to the day he died, it was actually only 17 days. It’s unimaginable that while he was in prison — they said that he had regular medical checkups every year and more than every year — how can they fail to discover anything wrong until the last 17 days of his life? It’s just not reasonable. So, we think that the international community should really pressure the Chinese government to release more information about his condition in prison, his medical record, health checks, and they should be given to his family. They said they had regular records. They have no evidence of this record of health checks. And there’s always this suspicion that they did intentionally neglected his illness so that he would just die earlier. So, the government wants less trouble to deal with. And they have to give accountability in all these surrounding circumstances of his death. And after the death of Liu Xiaobo, we also just heard that there was another prisoner who has spent a long time in jail, Yang Tianshui, who developed brain cancer. And when this news was released, again, his cancer was already terminal. There was nothing that people could do. I mean, this sort of thing keeps happening. People got sentenced to long jail sentences in China, and then they become very ill while serving their sentence, and die before they finish the jail sentence. I mean, this can’t go on. The Chinese government has to give some accountability. What’s happening inside these prisons? How are they treating all these prisoners who got terminally ill? I mean, the news of cancer is not just natural, right? There’s occupational cancer affecting people who work in factories who have had contact with chemicals that would lead to cancer. Who knows what’s happening in that prison that leads so many to have cancer all the time? There should be some sort of oversight on prison conditions in China.



Interviewer: All right. What do you think of the condition of Liu Xia? Is she going to be released from where she currently is? Right now, nobody knows where she is.

Hang Tung Chow: Well, at the last, we heard she is in Beijing.

Interviewer: She is in Beijing?

Hang Tung Chow: About one or two weeks ago, people could reach her on her landline in Beijing. So, she was there. But she is still under very heavy surveillance. She cannot go to talk to friends, or visit friends, or leave her house. So, her situation is basically not changed from the previous six, seven, eight years when she was under house arrest for no reason. And, of course, that cannot continue. But from the standpoint of the Chinese government, what incentive do they have to release her? Unless the people of the world stand up to strongly demand her release, I don’t see the Chinese government just voluntarily letting her out. I mean she was the one beside Liu Xiaobo in his last days. All the things that Liu Xiaobo cannot say to his friend, he may have said to her. She would know what he wanted to do, and she herself may also become that central focal point of any democratic movement subsequently. Again, the Chinese government does not want it to happen even though they cannot pin any crime on Liu Xia. So, although I am hoping that the Chinese government will just release her, I think is a bit silly. But we have to put enough pressure on the government to force them to give her back the freedom that she deserves.



Interviewer: How do you pressure the Chinese government?

Hang Tung Chow: Well, the international community really has to stand together. I mean, the governments of the world have to make a stand on such fundamental human rights violations. I think the other Nobel Peace Prize winners have a moral responsibility to follow up and apply pressure as well. And ultimately, it’s dependent on people power. Whether there will be democracy in China, or that Liu Xia will be free, will depend on how people can come together, take action, and put pressure by letter, by postcard, by reaction, by protest, anything that people can think of. But we need support not just from people inside China, but from people outside of China as well.



Interviewer: Yeah. How would you succeed his will to democratize China? It’s a big question I know.

Hang Tung Chow: That’s a big question. I will say but we are already continuing this fight, right?

We have been trying to organize. Maybe it’s a big job inside China, but we are trying to get people who have similar thinking together to talk and discuss and to support other prisoners of conscience inside China. I think that’s what Liu Xiaobo would want to see as well. And I also think his teaching of non-violence needs to be spread a lot more as well. It’s valuable not just for China, but for the world as well. So, there’s a lot of things that can be done to succeed his will. And, of course, one of the main things will be to gain his wife’s freedom . I think that would be what he most wanted.



Interviewer: It seems that you are helping each other with young people, young activists in Taiwan, or Tibet. What do you do with these people, these activists in other countries, the young people?

Hang Tung Chow: I mean, activists from different country should really come together and have coordinated action against China. China is such a big country with big power. They have big financial muscle to bully other countries into submission. The force of the people has to be joined together to show that, “No, this is not acceptable.” For the Chinese government, one of the tools of ruling the people is dividing the people. They say this a country of Han Chinese so that’s why you have to be wary about the Tibetans because they are terrorists or whatever. And again, we have to conquer that narrative. We have to say that the Tibetans are not our enemy. We should stand together to fight for freedom. Our common enemy is this totalitarian system, not each other. It’s the same thing that’s happening in Hong Kong. They are trying to pin the Chinese and Hong Kong people against each other. And again, we have to conquer this narrative. It’s not the people against the people. The biggest enemy is the government that is trying to pin us against each other. So that’s why we really have to talk to each other. We have to talk to people. There are people inside China, lots of young people as well.



Interviewer: Is there anything we could do for you? We are very much worried about your situation, and for you, as well as for activists in Hong Kong.

Hang Tung Chow: I will say a lot of reporting and discussion like this is very important. And I do remember that I saw a series of commemorations of Liu Xiaobo in Japan about a week after he died. I think that gave us a lot of support in this. Did you see that? Well, it’s as if in what we are fighting, the people in Japan are supporting us. I think that’s very touching and very uplifting for us. Action like that can inspire other action. Let’s just build up this positive feedback loop, that we do our action and support each other, and then we see inspiration from you, and then we get the strength to go on.

Interviewer: Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview.

While Persecution Spreads, So Does Hope: An Interview With Hang Tung Chow
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