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Hong Kong Democracy Activist Still Pushing for Change

FILE - Political activist and barrister Chow Hang Tung speaks to the media after leaving Tsuen Wan police station a day after being arrested in Hong Kong, June 5, 2021.
FILE - Political activist and barrister Chow Hang Tung speaks to the media after leaving Tsuen Wan police station a day after being arrested in Hong Kong, June 5, 2021.

For decades, Hong Kong was the only city in China where residents were allowed to publicly mark the anniversary of the bloody June 4, 1989, crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. Each year, one group, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, organized several memorials for June 4, including the annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park, which drew tens of thousands of people.

This year, the vigil was banned for a second time, after Beijing passed a sweeping national security law for the island last June. That did not stop Chow Hang Tung, the alliance's vice chairwoman and a key person in Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement, from going to Victoria Park to commemorate June 4 on her own, despite the risks.

She insisted her action was meant to preserve the dignity of the victims under China's authoritarian rule. She was detained for more than 30 hours for violating the national security law before being released on bail.

The former Cambridge researcher, now a lawyer actively defending people charged with national security law violations and other political crimes, spoke with VOA on the eve of the first anniversary of the law to discuss the mission of her organization and her hope for the port city. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

QUESTION: How did you get into activism?

ANSWER: I was born and raised in Hong Kong. For college, I studied geophysics at the University of Cambridge. There, I met some social activists on campus, and that made me realize my true passion lies in human rights. In 2010, I gave up my original plan to join a doctoral program in Britain and returned to the University of Hong Kong to pursue a law degree. In 2015, I started working for the Hong Kong Alliance. Since then, I've been going back and forth between mainland China and Hong Kong, participating in labor rights movements.

Q: Your organization focuses on working to improve the situation in mainland China. Some local groups say there's absolutely no need to engage people from the mainland. What's your response?

A: I don't think Hong Kong's social movements should only focus on the Hong Kong government, because Beijing is the one that makes the ultimate decision. You have to understand how the Beijing government thinks and how it controls its own people in order to better cope with its tactics of repression. Therefore, I think it is very important to understand China's society, politics, and how the people in China deal with their own government. There are not many organizations in Hong Kong that can do this, but the Hong Kong Alliance is one of them. The effort will allow Hong Kongers to better prepare when facing political repression from the Chinese Communist Party.

Q: I understand that since the enactment of the national security law, these two Hong Kong factions are working better together.

A: The localist camp is motivated by the things that have been happening around them, but it does not mean that you cannot be friends with people like me, who are concerned about issues in mainland China. After the implementation of the Hong Kong national security law, we see that more people from the localist camp and people like us who focus on China issues have formed closer bonds. In the past, everyone (in the localist camp) tended to think simplistically — that since China is our enemy, PRC (People's Republic of China) citizens (mainlanders) are our enemies. In fact, it should be the PRC government who is your enemy. As for the Chinese people, you should try hard to convince them to become your allies.

Q: Let's talk about the high-profile case of the 12 Hong Kong youths who were intercepted by the Chinese Coast Guard at sea back in 2020. While mainland human rights lawyers tried their best to meet with the detainees, social activists in Hong Kong organized events for their families to speak to the media. Did that cooperation bring any change?

A: This case has indeed changed the minds of many Hong Kong people. For them, it is the first time they see how the resistance movements in the two regions can actually support and complete each other. For example, when there is a movement in China, people in Hong Kong can show their support by petitioning to the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government in Hong Kong. And when there is a movement in Hong Kong, people in mainland China may also show support in return by holding up placards. Through this case, we see that mainland China is not the enemy. We see many people in the mainland standing with Hong Kong.

Q: June 30th marks the one-year anniversary of the passing of the national security law in Hong Kong. Since last June, we've seen the arrest of pro-democracy activists and the disqualification of opposition candidates from local elections, we've seen the closure of Apply Daily and the first trial without the presence of a jury. To you, what's the main concern of this law?

A: The national security law is a clear violation of the judiciary's independence. It gives the executive branch the power to appoint judges. The public gets the impression that they would choose pro-Beijing judges for cases related to the national security law. The public is not going to believe that the court is independent. The government also puts all kinds of pressures on the judges. How can there be judicial independence with such influence and pressure from the executive branch? Therefore, I believe judiciary independence of Hong Kong is indeed under great threat.

Q: Your organization has been through many obstacles under the national security law. What's your vision for the future?

A: The Hong Kong Alliance is a sacred organization. … We have five operational goals: Release the dissidents, rehabilitate the 1989 pro-democracy movement, demand accountability of the June 4th massacre, end one-party dictatorship, and, finally, build a democratic China. Since the passing of the national security law, things are indeed harder, but we will keep going regardless of how the laws are manipulated or how the court is working against us. I believe that we should not dissolve or disarm ourselves just because of the political pressure. Personally, even if I go to jail, my position of calling for the end of one-party dictatorship remains.