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Don’t let fear spread, HK Alliance Vice-Chairman Chow Hang-tung: I don’t consider myself particularly special

“Just yesterday, one of my high school classmates’ mother rang me and told me to be careful…,” Chow Hang-tung, Vice Chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (HKASPDMC or Alliance), said with a bitter smile. One month before the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, the Alliance was once again under the spotlight with verbal and written criticism from named individuals accusing it of subversion and calling for its abolition. Rumors and fears began to spread to every corner of Hong Kong, like a plague that was foreseen to strike.

By and large, many Hong Kong people have been asked the same questions these days: Are you frightened? Are you going to leave? “It’s more severe in my case, I am not asked if I would leave, rather I am told to leave!” After saying that, she would respond with her signature Chow-style laugh. In spite of the laughter, the former Cambridge researcher, now a barrister, had just wiped the tears from the corners of her eyes as she spoke of her human rights friends on the Mainland.

“I don’t think I’m particularly brave, I just keep on talking about the things I believe in, no different from before.” Coming to the forefront at a time of crisis, Chow said it was only natural for her to step forward. Hong Kong was once the only Chinese territory after the 1997 handover that could illuminate candles on June 4th, thus it was very precious. She is convinced that the darkness has not yet reached its end, and that further retreat will only make things worse, and there is no way back. The reporter asked her what she was most afraid of now that she was even prepared to go to jail. After a moment of serious reflection, she replied, “To live a humiliating life without ever being able to speak the truth.” Not letting fear spread and refusing to forget are the most important things at the moment, said Chow.

Do your best, nothing less

On the afternoon of a public holiday, I interviewed Chow Hang-tung at her law firm in Central. The sun was shining brilliantly outside the window, and the large office was quiet and empty except for Chow in the conference room with her head buried in the computer. She wore a white T-shirt printed with a 1989 article from Wen Wei Po, and the phrase “Ten miles of Chang’an Avenue stained with blood” was so shocking that it was still a nightmare for many generations. “I still have to attend to the street booth after the interview…,” said Chow, without taking her eyes off the computer screen.

No matter how busy she is, she is still “always present” at the street booths prior to June 4th, from Causeway Bay to Mongkok, holding a loudspeaker, urging the public to sign the condolence book and distributing white candles in advance. She is making final preparations for the June 4th candlelight vigil this year, which is fraught with many uncertainties.

“We are still working on obtaining approval for a rally in Victoria Park on the night of June 4th. We have already notified the police and met with them, and done everything we could. As long as they have yet to reject our request, there is still hope.” Eight of the 14 Standing Committee members of the Alliance have been charged, three of which are already in prison. Both Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho, Chairman and Vice Chairman of the Alliance, respectively, have lost their freedom, and Chow Hang-tung has been given the authority to act as spokesperson in the interim at the time of crisis. Chow said that although manpower is reduced, the work of the Alliance continues. In addition to the rally and annual vigil in Victoria Park pending approval, street stalls and seminars will be held as scheduled. It is hoped that the June Fourth Museum will reopen in time for the end of the month with a brand new exhibition. There are still many people working hard behind the scenes, and not a single thing that can be done will be cut short.

Persistence on the five operational goals

“I’ll do my best, but honestly, I don’t have much hope for the current regime, and I think the chances of opposing (the candlelight vigil) are quite high.” In early May, the Alliance held its last Standing Committee meeting before June 4th to discuss whether to continue the candlelight vigil in Victoria Park in the event that the application is rejected. “In fact, since the arrests on June 4th last year, we have discussed this issue at almost every Standing Committee meeting, sharing our concerns and worries. The best thing about the Alliance is that it is a group with relatively pure objectives, not competing for specific seats or resources, but just fulfilling the five major goals. This way, there aren’t too many divergences.”

However, with the red line being tightened and prison sentences being handed down to memorial participants, the chilling effect is already underway. So where does one draw the line to ensure safety? “The law could serve as the line if it were crystal clear, but the problem is that it is ambiguous, and we do not know where the line lies. If they say they reject the rally in Victoria Park, we simply cannot go ahead with the event even if we cry out that we want to go there. The line of legality is not a line, such as banning rallies openly and explicitly, using roundabout methods to make this happen, which is not the same as the bottom line of the principle, it is a question of the scope of action.

“The reality is that the scope is narrowing”

Chow Hang-tung agreed that it is an indisputable reality that the scope is narrowing. “The legal risk is that in a series of cases, those who participate in unauthorized assemblies can be sentenced to up to 12 months in jail, but whether this risk will materialize or not is another matter. For example, if 20,000 people were to attend the June 4th rally, they would not arrest all 20,000 people; if there were only 10, 20 or 30 people, they would surround Victoria Park and arrest them all. This is an interactive process, in which the more people show their power, the safer we will be; the fewer people come out, the more dangerous they will be. The rigid penalties are in place, and it’s up to our strength to determine how many people will be punished in the end.”

At a time when the Alliance is facing opposition on all fronts, Chow Hang-tung, who has been given the responsibility to move from the sidelines to the forefront, said it is not her wish. It is not because she is afraid, but because she is worried that the high profile will prevent her from traveling freely to and from the Mainland and affect her future work in supporting the pro-democracy movement in China. “It is like a lot of people telling you not to do something, and if you insist on doing it, there will be noises, some of them may be warnings in advance, others may be with good intentions. But to me, it is just a peaceful gathering, so why should there be such fear and tension?” Fear is like a predictable plague. Many people say Chow is brave, but she says it was just a misunderstanding.

“I don’t find myself particularly brave, I just continue to preach what I believe in, no different from before,” she said. “Family and friends will be worried given the social environment. A mother of a high school classmate called me the other day and told me to be careful. They are all kind reminders.” Have you been swayed after hearing so much of it? “Not at all, there were some things that were expected when I first joined the Alliance and supported the pro-democracy movement in China. I had worked with many dissidents and prisoners of conscience, whose situations were many times worse. They would go missing for a few years and be subject to torture, which was really frightening, so this kind of warnings in advance is trivial.”

Chow Hang-tung, who has no plans to emigrate, is always very frank and straightforward. “There is a lot of potential for them to further suppress and control the society. I think we have to be prepared for the darkness. How fast the darkest will approach will depend on how solid we are. Some of the things we insist on doing, the normal things, should continue to be done without scaling down. If you think that it is already as bad as it can be, and you expect it not to get any worse, the reality is that it will continue to get worse.” However, it is not the expected repression or imprisonment that scares her the most, but “the humiliation of having to live with it.”

“I’ can’t pledge allegiance to the Communist Party”

“I’m not particularly scared to go to jail. You’ve seen many examples of people who came out of jail and started over again, like Liu Xiaobo, no big deal. What scares me most is that you want me to live a humiliating life, not to speak the truth, and always doing things in fear. To be a lawyer in China, I have to swear allegiance to the Communist Party, which I truly can’t do. I’m more scared of that than of being in jail. I’m terrified to be one of those people who have to live a life on their knees.” Her greatest fear is that she will not be able to return to the Mainland to do her much-loved human rights work and continue to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with her comrades from the same roots.

“The most obvious example is supporting the 12 Hong Kong people. When Hong Kong people asked the Mainlanders for help, they believed that Hong Kong people must be helped, no matter the cost. This is not something we can ever repay. Hong Kong people, however, are less aware of human rights issues in the Mainland, and those who are concerned are probably always the same hundred or so people. It turned out that friends in the Mainland believed that the people of Hong Kong must be helped, and this is not equivalent. Those with names, we know they have lost their professional qualifications as lawyers; those without names, have also paid huge prices…” As she said that, she shed tears of sadness despite her usual tough demeanor. China and Hong Kong are linked by destiny, and it has never been just a slogan, Chow said.

“Hong Kong people enjoy freedom and have the responsibility to do more”

Born to a liberal middle-class family, her father was an accountant and her mother an occupational therapist. Chow Hang-tung studied at a prestigious traditional girls’ high school, where her grades were outstanding and she was well-positioned to live in an ivory tower. In junior high, she became fascinated with Jin Yong, loved Guo Jing, and hated heartthrob Yang Guo. She laughed and said that her identification with Chinese culture comes to a large extent from martial arts novels, from the beautiful mountains and rivers to the historical and cultural stories behind them. She admitted that she is not particularly resistant to the Chinese identity. “Perhaps I am really a leftist, who does not feel the need to differentiate between Chinese and Hong Kong people. Hong Kong people have always been lucky to have come to this land by chance of history. And with this freedom comes the responsibility to do more.”

In the year of the Tiananmen Square protests, she was four years old and her mother was pregnant with her younger brother to be named “Hok-hei,” meaning “hope for the student movement.” The name alone suggests that her parents’ expectations for Chow were much simpler: to be a happy and joyful child. Yet this lucky child is particularly sensitive to other people’s misfortunes. “When I was young, I only knew that the students were pursuing something good, but the government killed people in the end and I only focused on the massacre. It was not until I went to university that I started to understand the democratic movement behind it.” People of different generations have different experiences and will have different concerns. Chow said the Tiananmen Square protests were her political inspiration growing up, and the annual candlelight vigils in Victoria Park were what gave her hope and perseverance.

Study abroad in Cambridge: “DIY” events to commemorate June 4

“I grew up attending the June 4th rallies every year, no matter how far I traveled, I would never forget my roots, just like friends who participated in the 2019 anti-ELAB movement would never forget their friends and fellow companions.” Perhaps people abroad are particularly homesick. When she was studying in the UK, she could not go to Victoria Park in person, so she lit a white candle in her dormitory and watched the live broadcast of the Alliance’s candlelight vigil. Despite the miles of distance, it still brought tears to her eyes. “At that time, no one in the UK held commemorative activities for the massacre, so I thought I might as well do it myself.”

She presented a human rights documentary on campus, and invited Wang Dan and Wei Jingsheng to moderate the discussion, overflowing a large lecture hall that could accommodate several hundred people. She even started something new by releasing June 4th water lanterns in River Cam to create a novel approach to generate discussion. It was from that time on that she began to meet human rights friends scattered all over the world. It was the Great Sichuan earthquake in 2008 that really made her decide to transition from the field of science to human rights work. At that time, she was still a graduate student at the University of Cambridge, majoring in geophysics, writing her Ph.D. thesis on earthquakes, with fellow classmates who were amongst the elites in the world.

Advocating for human rights in the spirit of science

“There were data collection stations on the Tibetan Plateau at that time. There was a lot of important data and it was a very valuable moment for scientific researchers, but because (the Chinese government) felt that the situation was unstable due to the disruption in Lhasa and the human rights activism in Sichuan, the research was halted immediately. I thought, what is the use of doing scientific research under such a system? Political security has overridden everything.” It turned out that science is only a well-intended wish, which cannot offset tofu-dreg projects. Standing at the crossroads, she wished to start from the fundamentals and work like a human. After struggling for more than a year, she made up her mind to bid farewell to Cambridge and return to Hong Kong in 2010 to start from zero. “There is nothing to regret, as long as there is sufficient income, it is OK,” Chow said with great determination.

“When I was in the UK, I talked to many friends in exile, but you would feel that they were all second-hand information. I wanted to find a job that would allow me to go to the Mainland to go to the field and see what was going on. You could read others’ reports, you could read NGOs’ statements, but after all, they are the work of other people. Are the situations really as bad as they say? And is what the government says correct? I wanted to see it with my own eyes.” After returning to Hong Kong, she worked for the Alliance doing odd jobs paid by the hour, moving and lifting things, setting up street booths, sealing envelopes, handing out white candles, and helping out at the candlelight vigil for the June 4th massacre.

“I didn’t have a job back then and didn’t know anything except the Alliance so I worked there while looking for a better job.” Later, as she wished, she joined a labor organization in the Mainland and handled a lot of occupational disease support for Chinese workers. “I was thrown into the Mainland to hear the proceedings, but I had never studied law, so there were many things I didn’t understand.” Starting from ground zero again, she spent another four years studying law at the University of Hong Kong and obtained her barrister’s qualification. It was only in 2016 that she officially became a member of the Standing Committee of the Alliance. According to Chow, it was all by chance. After the Umbrella Movement, the Hong Kong Federation of Students withdrew from the Alliance, and the younger generation drifted away from the Alliance, which coincided with the re-election of its Standing Committee. Born in the 80s, she was considered young and strong, and therefore was persuaded to give it a try. She probably never thought she would go further and further to the forefront back then.

“The focus of my work has always been in the Mainland. In the beginning, I didn’t serve on the Standing Committee because I was doing a lot of work in China, and it was more convenient to keep a low profile…” Now she has moved from behind the scenes to the foreground, unwillingly but rightfully so. She is competent at bridging the gaps and does not think it is riskier at the front than behind the scenes. However, she is rational and does not hide the fact that she is psychologically prepared to go to jail. “Compared to our friends who are charged with rioting in the 2019 anti-ELAB movement who may be sentenced to 10 to 20 years in prison, the maximum term of two years in prison for us is nothing…” The sun shines beautifully outside the window, and Chow Hang-tung, with her bright and smiling disposition, repeatedly urged the reporters not to make her look too miserable in the photos. Can such a forthright, bold and strong woman still be tolerated in Hong Kong today?

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