A South Korean human rights group has condemned what it calls inappropriate pressure from the Chinese government, after the organization selected a jailed Hong Kong pro-democracy activist as the winner of its annual human rights award.
The May 18 Foundation — an organization based in South Korea's southwestern city of Gwangju — earlier this month named labor activist and lawyer Chow Hang-tung as the recipient of its 2023 Gwangju Prize for Human Rights.
Chow is serving 22 months in prison for attending and helping organize vigils to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. She faces up to 10 more years in jail after being charged with "inciting subversion" under Hong Kong's far-reaching National Security Law.
A day after Chow was announced as the winner, the Chinese consulate in Gwangju demanded a meeting with the May 18 Foundation and later dispatched three officials in an attempt to get the award rescinded, the group told VOA.
It is the latest instance of China attempting to control conversation about its policies and silence critics in South Korea, a trend also seen globally.
"It's absurd that the national government would visit and condemn an NGO," said Won Sun-seok, chairperson of the May 18 Foundation. "This is not an issue related to the national government."
The rights group's name is a reference to a 1980 student-led protest in Gwangju, also known as the May 18 Democratic Uprising. The protest movement was crushed by South Korea's brutal, U.S.-backed military leaders, but helped kindle a nationwide pro-democracy movement.
Since 2000, the May 18 Foundation has presented an annual award to those who embody the fighting spirit of the Gwangju protesters.
In announcing Chow as the winner, the organization said she "tirelessly challenged the government's unjust and unfair treatment of human rights defenders."
"As a prisoner of conscience, she continues to struggle against the system that oppresses the people of Hong Kong," the group said. "Despite her imprisonment, she has become a symbol of courage and hope."
'Nothing can stop her'
Chow was the vice chairman of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organized an annual vigil to commemorate those killed by the Chinese military during 1989 protests in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
According to fellow activists, Chow kept a relatively low profile for years as she worked to defend fellow pro-democracy advocates targeted by Hong Kong's government.
But after a sweeping crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2019, Chow emerged as one of the relatively few remaining dissidents in Hong Kong who dared to openly challenge the Chinese government.
Chow's motivation to continue speaking out despite grave personal risk can be attributed to her belief that human rights and freedom are the birthright of the Hong Kong and Chinese people, says fellow Hong Kong political activist Glacier Kwong.
"She simply thinks this is the right thing to do, and nothing can stop her. It's just as simple as that," said Kwong, who is currently studying in Britain.
According to the May 18 Foundation, Chinese consulate officials claimed Chow was a "dangerous person" and a "criminal" who led protests that threatened the Chinese government. If the group proceeded with the award, the officials warned, it would impact the opinion that many Chinese people have of Gwangju and the May 18 Foundation.
The Chinese consulate in Gwangju did not respond to VOA's request for comment on the matter.
China angry at solidarity displays
Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement has attracted support from many South Koreans who see overlap with their own country's past struggle for freedom. But China has often responded to South Korean shows of solidarity with heavy-handed tactics.
The Chinese pressure was especially intense in 2019, when South Koreans held demonstrations in support of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement.
At the time, South Korean activists claimed that pressure from the Chinese consulate in Gwangju resulted in a university canceling an event with a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist.
There were also reports of Chinese students attacking Korean classmates and vandalizing so-called "Lennon Walls," which contain messages of support for Hong Kong protesters.
Those incidents, along with China's broadly more combative stance toward its neighbors, help explain why South Korean views of China have plummeted in recent years.
Opinion polls now suggest South Korean perceptions of China are roughly equal to views about Japan, Korea's former colonial ruler.
No fear or favor
Some observers say it is notable that Chow was given the award by a rights group based in Gwangju, which is located in a region where voters overwhelmingly support left-leaning political causes.
"There is this idea that if you criticize China then you are a conservative, and if you don't then you're a liberal. But the May 18 Foundation dispelled this notion. In fact, this award was given based on universal principles," said Na Hyun-phil, secretary general of the Seoul-based Korean House for International Solidarity, which focuses on global human rights issues.
Won, head of the non-partisan May 18 Foundation, insists his group will not single out any country. But the soft-spoken 72-year-old, who as a college student was sentenced to two years in jail for participating in the 1980 Gwangju protests, has experience standing his ground.
"We don't bow to that kind of pressure," said Won, who stressed the importance of global solidarity against government oppression, no matter where it exists.