Three prominent leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement were sentenced to prison this week for leading a protest last year. Joshua Wong received 13 and a half months; Agnes Chow, 10 months; and Ivan Lam, seven months. Wong has already been in prison a few times as the result of his activism.
They are young. Lam is 26. Wong is 24. Chow turned 24 this past Dec. 3, the day after she received her first prison sentence, spending her birthday in jail.
Had they lived in a free society like in the United States of America, these young people would have likely lived a normal life: hanging out with friends, spending hours playing video games (a confessed hobby for both Joshua and Agnes), looking for their first job out of college, and finding love. Unfortunately, the Chinese Communist Party’s suppression has quickly turned Hong Kong — one of the formerly freest places on the planet — into a dystopian state.
Led By the Future
While young, these three activists are veterans of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Their activism began when they were still teenagers.
Wong led his first peaceful protest against Beijing’s plan to build a high-speed rail linking Hong Kong and mainland China — he was just 13. Two years later, he joined 17-year-old Ivan Lam in founding the student activist group, Scholarism, fighting against the Hong Kong overnment’s plan of implementing a “moral and national education” curriculum that intended to craft Hong Kong school children into citizens loyal instead to Beijing.
At 15, Chow joined a sit-in demonstration outside the Hong Kong government’s office. Parents and teachers also voiced their concerns about Beijing’s attempts to infiltrate various sectors in Hong Kong. They regarded such compulsive patriotic education as an effort to brainwash young minds. In time, Beijing-appointed Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying withdrew the plan amidst public pressure.
Then, in 2014, after Beijing denied Hong Kongers the right to universal suffrage, more than 800,000 Hong Kong residents signed an online pro-democracy petition. The petition was soon followed by protests, and young people, mostly students, occupied three downtown business districts streets, demanding the right to choose the city’s political leaders and calling for Leung’s resignation.
Their movement became known as the Umbrella Movement, deriving its name from members’ ingenious usage of umbrellas to shield against tear gas and rubber bullets police fired. Wong was the most visible leader of the movement, and his young face graced the cover of Time magazine.
Although the movement failed to secure universal suffrage, in former Democrat legislator Emily Lau’s words, “the desire for democracy had been stirred up.” In 2016, Wong and Lam joined Chow and another young activist — 23-year-old Nathan Law — to co-found a youth-oriented political party, Demosistō, literally meaning “democracy standing.” They called for reclaiming Hong Kong’s political agenda through “democratic self-determination” while rejecting the CCP’s authoritarian rule.
In the 2016 Legislative Council election, Law became the youngest candidate ever elected. Those were the times Hong Kong youth still felt hopeful that the existing political process could achieve some of their goals. Their hopes, however, were quickly diminished.
A Turn For the Worse
In 2017, on the eve of the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared, “Now that Hong Kong has returned to the motherland for 20 years, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any realistic meaning.” In effect, it was abandoning all pretense of keeping the promises they made to Britain and Hongkongers when Britain allowed the city its independence.
Shortly after Beijing’s declaration, a Hong Kong court disqualified four pro-democracy lawmakers, including Nathan Law, for modifying their oaths of allegiance to China during their swearing-in ceremony back in 2016. Then, Nathan Law, Wong, and Alex Chow (no relation to Agnes Chow) were convicted and sent to jail for their activities in the 2014 Umbrella movement. In 2018, a Hong Kong court barred Agnes Chow from running for office.
For a while, it seemed a majority of Hong Kongers lost interest in fighting for their political rights. Attendance at the annual June 4th candlelight vigil had dwindled. Then came Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s 2019 attempt to expedite a controversial bill that would allow Hong Kong to extradite wanted criminals to mainland China for trial. Many Hong Kongers are concerned that if the new extradition bill becomes law, Hong Kong authorities, under Beijing’s pressure, will also surrender anyone wanted by Beijing on trumped-up charges.
Yet the extradition bill seemed to be the last straw. Widespread opposition united legislators, legal scholars, business people, and ordinary citizens, rejuvenating the pro-democracy movement. With leaders such as Wong and Chow, young people have been at the forefront of the city’s anti-extradition bill protests, which later evolved into a renewed pro-democracy movement.
Not Yet a Lost Cause
After several months of protest and unrest in the city, Carrie Lam finally withdrew the bill, but she and her Communist Party bosses in Beijing are unwaveringly bent on making the leaders of the protests pay. On July 1, 2020, Beijing forced a draconian national security law onto Hong Kong, all but ending its commitment to the “One Country, Two Systems” framework.
Each day, news out of Hong Kong reads like a eulogy of a city that used to be a bastion of liberty. Political organizations have disbanded. Activists like Nathan Law have left Hong Kong in self-imposed exile. Democratic lawmakers are ejected from the city’s legislature. Books by pro-democracy writers are removed from public libraries. Local businesses rush to remove posters supporting protests and the pro-democracy movement. Hongkongers scrub their digital footprints and install virtual private networks.
Despite his wealth and prominence, 71-year-old businessman Jimmy Lai was also arrested on a trumped-up fraud charge the day after the prison sentence of the three young activists. He’s another long-time outspoken critic of Beijing silenced.
Considering all of this, it may be tempting to conclude that a truly free Hong Kong is a lost cause and that the CCP has won. Yet if a regime with one of the most powerful militaries on earth feels the need to imprison youths and senior citizens to suppress dissent, it may not be as powerful as it seems. The image of these brave, handcuffed activists walking into prison cells says more about the CCP’s insecurity and weakness rather than its surface-level strength.
The U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted: “The United States is appalled by the Hong Kong government’s political persecution of Jimmy Lai, Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam. Their struggle to resist the CCP’s denial of their fundamental rights will stand throughout history as testaments to the human spirit.”
The backlash to China’s aggression has gone beyond words. Beijing’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, its ruthless political crackdown on Hong Kong, as well as its ethnic cleansing of Uighur Muslims, have exposed the CCP’s nature in its truest form.
Led by the United States and its allies, a united front to push back on the CCP’s domestic and international aggressions is starting to take shape. As a result of this joint effort, more countries are now excluding China’s telecom company, Huawei, from their 5G networks; more countries are offering to accept Hong Kong political refugees despite threats from Beijing; and more countries are demanding an investigation of the origin and spread of the novel coronavirus.
History has shown us that even the hardest totalitarian regimes will crumble when courageous people rise up. As the future of Hong Kong, time is on the side of Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam. The CCP can’t imprison the future forever.