Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 30 June 2023


Opinion A Hong Kong lawyer resisted airbrushing history. Now she is in jail.

Chow Hang-tung leaves a police station in Hong Kong after being released on bail in June 2021. She was convicted later that year and again in 2022 and is imprisoned. (Kin Cheung/AP)
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For China’s Communist Party rulers, historical memory must be vigilantly patrolled. The government attempts to airbrush out events such as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Chow Hang-tung resisted. She kept the flame alive — literally, by helping organize candlelight vigils commemorating the violent attack on pro-democracy student protesters. Ms. Chow, a 38-year-old lawyer in Hong Kong, has been imprisoned for her actions and her beliefs; she is awaiting trial.

The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention of the U.N. Human Rights Council found that Ms. Chow’s imprisonment is a breach of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which China signed in 1998. What’s more, the U.N. group has sharply criticized the new national security law that China imposed on Hong Kong, and under which Ms. Chow is being prosecuted. The group concluded Ms. Chow should be freed. The group is right.

In 2016, Ms. Chow became vice chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. The group campaigned for democracy and the release of individuals wrongly imprisoned, organizing annual public gatherings on June 4 to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre. Some years, these vigils attracted as many as 180,000 people. A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers has nominated Ms. Chow and five others in Hong Kong for the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize.

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Ms. Chow also worked for labor rights and in defense of human rights on the mainland. This put her in the crosshairs of the Hong Kong authorities, who answer to China’s party bosses in Beijing. From 2020 onward, she was arrested four times and released three times. She was arrested June 23, 2020, for participating in that year’s Tiananmen commemoration. She was released, then arrested June 4, 2021, on the same charge, based on a social media post urging people to light candles throughout the territory, and again released. The third arrest came June 30, 2021, this time on suspicion she had encouraged people to participate in a pro-democracy demonstration, but evidence was lacking; she was released on bail after 37 days in pretrial detention.

Her fourth arrest came Sept. 8, 2021, along with that of other alliance leaders, for refusing to comply with a police order to turn over information about the group. The authorities wanted to determine if it should be labeled a “foreign agent” under the new national security law. The alliance leaders decided to dissolve the organization on Sept. 25, 2021. Yet she has remained in prison and has been denied bail on the latest charges, all while battling the earlier ones linked to the Tiananmen commemorations. One conviction was overturned on appeal. In March, she and two other members of the alliance were convicted of one charge under the national security law for refusing the police request. Ms. Chow still faces another charge, “incitement to state subversion,” which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

She is representing herself from prison, where she has no internet access, no computer and limited access to books. The U.N. group expressed concern about overly broad application of the national security law to harass and close media outlets; block online content; arrest and arbitrarily detain journalists, politicians, academics, students and human rights defenders who have expressed dissenting views; and carry out censorship. Moreover, the group said any law must be precise enough so that people can follow it — and the new national security law is “clearly lacking” this basic principle. The group Hong Kong Watch said the law is being “used for political reasons without regard for the rule of law.”

Exercising freedom of expression and association — such as by carrying a candle in memory of Tiananmen — should not be a crime. Ms. Chow is wrongly imprisoned and should be freed.

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