Can This 22-Year-Old Bring Democracy to Hong Kong?

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow Ting.

Source Liau Chung-ren/ZUMA Wire/Alamy

Why you should care

Because she could emerge as a leader of a free Hong Kong … or become a political prisoner.

Like any 22-year-old, Agnes Chow Ting loves to listen to music — contemporary Japanese songs are her favorite — and let loose at karaoke bars. But unlike others her age, she hasn’t been able to unwind in a long time. “My city is burning; there is no time for ‘me time,’” says the Hong Kong pro-democracy leader who has been able to do the unthinkable — rattle the mighty and powerful China.

For months, chaos and anti-government protests have roiled Hong Kong. The protests that began in June over plans to allow extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China — a proposal withdrawn in September — show no sign of stopping. With every passing day, the violence unleashed on Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters by authorities is escalating, with the shooting of a protester last week followed by a ban on face masks. Chow and her fellow activists from the political organization Demosistō are livid.

“This protest is very important; it has changed the history of social movements in Hong Kong,” says Chow, who has been labeled “little girl” by Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam. “We haven’t won the fight yet — we will continue our fight till we do.”

I joined [the student movement] because I wanted to make people understand how important it is to love each other.

Agnes Chow Ting

Chow’s soft-spoken demeanor stands in stark contrast to the conviction she displays when speaking about freedom. It’s a conviction that has made her one of the three unofficial spokespersons for the movement, along with her Demosistō co-founders Joshua Wong and Nathan Law. Chow first met Law in 2014, when their student organizations collaborated for a political movement seeking electoral reforms.

By then, Chow was already a veteran of the fight. While a student at Holy Family Canossian College, the then 15-year-old joined the 2012 sit-ins against government plans to introduce “moral and national education” — seen by opponents as communist brainwashing. It was in college that she met Wong, who has since become the most prominent voice of young democracy advocates, although he denies that status. “Agnes and I are both voices of the protest,” Wong says. “She is a brave young woman who has been inspiring millions of Hongkongers every day for the last seven years.”

In those seven years, a lot has changed in Hong Kong.

“The protests now are totally different,” Chow says. “There is no leader in this movement and people are discussing what to do as we go along with consensus on the internet — Telegram and other social media. People have taken it on themselves to ensure that it is not just a movement to retract the extradition bill; it is a movement against totalitarianism.”

Discussing politics was not the norm in Chow’s family, which she describes as a typical Hong Kong business family of devout Catholics. Her faith, she says, motivated her journey into politics. “I believe that religion teaches [us] how to love each other and fight for a just society with love,” she explains. “I joined [the student movement] because I wanted to make people understand how important it is to love each other. I know I have faced resistance over the last seven years. But I have also gotten a lot of love from the people of Hong Kong; so that makes it all worthwhile.”

But fear and hopelessness are facts of life in the movement. Chow and I spoke a day after an 18-year-old protester was shot point-blank in the chest by Hong Kong police during a rally. “The police want to murder Hong Kong residents,” Chow says, her voice quavering. She says she was treated cautiously and released within nine hours after she was arrested in August “because the world knows me,” but that does not extend to her compatriots.

“I am not afraid to be sent to prison,” she adds. “But I’m afraid of being killed in a demonstration by pro-Beijing police or the mafia.” 

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Joshua Wong (center left) and Agnes Chow Ting (center right) arriving at the Eastern Magistrates’ Court in Hong Kong.

Source Kyle Lam/Bloomberg via Getty

Last year, Hong Kong barred Chow from standing in a by-election, a decision recently overturned by a city court. The narrow ruling is only a half-victory, says Chow, who gave up her British citizenship to run for office, because it doesn’t rule out political tests on candidates. Wong’s application to run in the upcoming district elections will test how far the ruling really goes.

Chow doesn’t have any plans to run for office — for now. “I want to focus on activism and motivating people,” she says, especially the international community. She spoke at a conference in Germany last month and wants to work with the United Kingdom and the United States to ensure they don’t sell weapons to Hong Kong authorities.

Public affairs commentator James Sung says it will take a fair proposal from all ends — the authorities, Beijing and the protesters — to ensure peace returns to Hong Kong, and “leaders such as Chow and Wong must ensure the protesters don’t resort to violence.”

Lawrence J. Lau, an economics professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, however, says the young people of Hong Kong remind him of children being led astray by the Pied Piper of Hamelin. “They are being led by self-interested and unscrupulous local and external forces,” he says. If the escalating chaos does not stop soon, Lau warns, it may lead to the intervention of the central government to restore order — something that Hongkongers do not want.

Chow laughs off that kind of criticism. “We cannot become the mainland, and we never will,” she says. “I have faith in my people.”

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