Why Agnes Chow fled Hong Kong and is unlikely to return

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ohin the evening of her 27th birthday this month, Agnes Chow updated her Instagram feed for the first time in two and a half years. The former activist (pictured) was jailed in 2020 for his involvement in anti-democracy protests in Hong Kong a year earlier. When she was released on bail in 2021, national security agents in the city surrendered her passport. She is still under investigation. On Instagram she said she was living in fear, avoiding politics and struggling with anxiety and depression.

She also described the extraordinary measures taken by the authorities in Hong Kong in an attempt to change her views. She was forced to write a letter expressing regret for what she had done and vowing not to communicate with other activists. In August five agents took her to Shenzhen, a city in mainland China. They took her to a presentation looking at the country’s achievements since it started to reform its economy. She was forced to pose for photos at the headquarters of technology giant Tencent. In the end, she had to write a letter of thanks to the police for “showing her the great improvement of the mother”.

Ms Chow had to do that to get her passport back. Earlier this year she was accepted to a master’s program in Canada. In September, a day before she was due to leave, the document was returned to her. Now in Toronto, she has decided not to go back to Hong Kong, possibly for the rest of her life. “I don’t want to be forced to do things against my will anymore,” she wrote on Instagram. “My body and my spirit will fall.”

As Ms. Chow’s story shows, police and officials in Hong Kong are using tools often used on the mainland to control residents. These range from forced confessions and so-called “patriotic tours” to re-education initiatives in prisons. Young people are a particular target. Even as the city tries to lure back tourists and businesses under the “Happy Hong Kong” banner, its leaders plan to expand the use of these tactics.

Officials in Hong Kong have criticized Ms Chow for jumping bail. “Refugees will be hunted for their lives if they don’t turn in,” said John Lee, the city’s chief executive. He said Ms Chow is a “fake” and a “hypocrite” who is suspected of “collaborating with foreign forces to endanger national security”, a vague charge often used against activists. to punish These foreign forces are still trying to invade Hong Kong, Mr. Lee said, so the local government plans to implement new security-related measures next year. Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Constitution, the Basic Law, mandates the government to create such legislation, but public opposition has delayed the act until now.

Radical measures

To control people like Ms Chow the government has also developed a “deradicalisation” programme. This usually happens in prison. According to officials, hundreds of detainees have participated. Most were activists. A young participant named Tsang Chi-kin was interviewed for a television series sponsored by the Hong Kong police. Shot at a pro-democracy protest in 2019 and later arrested, Mr Tsang said the program taught him to manage his emotions. “We must think clearly before we act so that we are not provoked and provoked by others.”

The program includes meeting with a psychologist, studying Chinese history and culture, and attending career planning sessions. One government video shows detainees playing the drums. They sing a song called “Chinese People”. “I’m proud to be Chinese,” said a detainee. “Chinese drums were invented by us Chinese people. I feel very privileged to be a part of the People’s Republic of China.”

Hong Kong officials seem to think the de-radiation program is working. There have been no major protests since 2019. But the pandemic and China’s wider crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong are the main reasons for that. Detainees who have been released say they regret the “brainwashing” attempt. Such coercive methods are good for one thing, however: pushing young people like Ms Chow away.

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