One of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy activists, who was imprisoned in the wake of the 2019 Hong Kong protests, said on Sunday that she has left the city for Canada and plans to never return.
Agnes Chow, 27, became a face of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement after she helped establish the Demosisto political party in 2016 alongside other young activists Joshua Wong and Nathan Law. The group disbanded hours after Beijing passed a sweeping national security law in 2020 that put a chilling effect on political activism in the city, and has been criticized by western governments for stifling free expression and interfering with Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status as a former British colony.
Chow was arrested in 2019 for allegedly inciting an unauthorized protest outside Hong Kong police headquarters. After the national security law was passed, she was arrested again during a mass crackdown that saw other pro-democracy figures detained, including businessman Jimmy Lai.
She was sentenced to 10 months in jail and was eventually released in June 2021.
Now, in her first public comments since getting out of prison, Chow revealed that she has been studying in Canada since September and plans to skip her bail requirements by never returning to Hong Kong.
In a two-part Instagram post translated by Global News, Chow writes that she was “terrified” she would never get let out of jail and added that even when she was released, “the fear and anxiety in my heart did not disappear at all.”
Chow’s passport was confiscated after she left prison, and she had to regularly report to police in accordance with the national security law she was charged under, she writes.
“Every time I reported to the authorities, I was worried that I would be arrested again at any time,” she writes.
Chow added that even when she returned home she would imagine police breaking down her door and arresting her again.
“Every day, these images would pop into my head, and there was nothing I could do, except cry, mentally break down, tremble, or talk to my friends about my fears. There was nothing I could do,” she writes.
Chows says she was diagnosed with anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and depression after her prison release.
After a few years of not engaging in politics or public activities, Chow decided to enrol in a master’s program and was admitted to an unspecified Canadian university in Toronto.
She was asked to submit information about her university, timetable and dormitory to police and was required to write a “letter of repentance,” stating that she regretted her past political actions, promising to not take part in political activities again or contact her former activist colleagues.
She feared she would not be able to study abroad, or even leave the police station if she refused.
Authorities piled on more requirements, Chow writes, including a mandatory trip to China accompanied by national security officers. There, she visited an exhibit to learn about China’s development under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and travelled to the headquarters of Tencent to learn about China’s technological development.
“Frankly speaking, I have never denied China’s economic development, but for such a powerful country to send people fighting for democracy to jail, to restrict their freedom of entry and exit, and to require entry into China to visit patriotic exhibitions in exchange for passports, is it not a kind of vulnerability?” she writes.
When she returned to Hong Kong, she asked to write a thank-you letter to Hong Kong police for arranging the trip for her.
“Finally, I left Hong Kong in mid-September to study in Toronto, Canada, and I received my passport the day before I left,” Chow writes, adding that she was allowed to participate in the university program as long as she returned to Hong Kong during her vacations.
Initially, Chow planned to return to Hong Kong at the end of December, but “after careful consideration, including the situation in Hong Kong, my own safety, and my physical and mental health, I have decided not to go back to Hong Kong.”
“The main reason is that if I go back to report to the office, even if national security does not arrest me or take back my passport, there is a high probability that they will impose conditions or question me as they did before, and I will need to fulfill their requests to return to Canada,” she writes.
“I don’t want to be forced to do what I don’t want to do, and I don’t want to be forced to go to China anymore. If this continues, even if I am safe, my body and mind will collapse.”
Chow told TV Tokyo on Monday that she was still weighing her next steps, including the option of seeking asylum in Canada, the broadcaster reported. Asked whether she would take up political activism there, she said she wanted to do something in Hong Kong’s interest, TV Tokyo said.
Hong Kong police on Monday “strongly condemned” Chow’s move, without naming her, saying it was “against and challenging the rule of law.”
“Police urge the woman to immediately turn back before it is too late and not to choose a path of no return. Otherwise, she will bear the stigma of ‘fugitive’ for the rest of her life,” the police said in a statement.
Asked about Chow’s case at a daily briefing, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Hong Kong is a law-based society and no one has a privilege beyond law. Any illegal acts will be punished, he said.
The Hong Kong government also strongly condemned Chow’s acts in a statement and said her credibility had gone “bankrupt.”
“Unless fugitives surrender themselves, otherwise they would be pursued for life,” it wrote.
Many of Chow’s peers have been jailed, arrested, forced into self-exile or silenced after the introduction of the security law in 2020, which has led to more than 280 arrests.
Activist Joshua Wong, for example, is now in custody and faces a subversion charge that could result in life imprisonment if convicted. Nathan Law fled to Britain and the police in July offered a reward of one million Hong Kong dollars ($127,600) for information leading to his arrest.
Global News has reached out to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, Public Safety Canada and the RCMP for comment.
— With files from Reuters and The Associated Press