Catholic pro-democracy leader released from Hong Kong jail

News: Hong Kong

Agnes Chow, the Catholic pro-democracy activist, has been released from prison in Hong Kong after serving more than 6 months for attending an “unlawful” assembly in 2019. Chow, 24, was convicted of attending public protests against a law that would have allowed for political prisoners to be extradited to mainland China to face trial in some circumstances.

Chow was released from Tai Lam women’s prison on Saturday, more than three months early after receiving a 10 month sentence in December 2020, along with Joshua Wong, a Christian and co-founder of the Demosisto pro-democracy organization with Chow. It is not clear why Chow was released early; Wong remains in prison.

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Chow was arrested in 2019 for taking part in a protest in August 2019, and convicted in August 2020, before she was formally sentenced in December. 

On her Instagram account on Saturday, Chow said that after “half a year and twenty days of pain, it’s finally over.” Chow said she planned to have a “good rest” and to recover physically after her time in prison, noting that “[my] body has become too thin during this period.”

The 2019 extradition law, which Chow was jailed for protesting, sparked nearly a year of mass protests and demonstrations in Hong Kong and was widely seen as an infringement of the civil liberties guaranteed by the special administrative region’s Basic Law following the handover to China from Great Britain in 1997. The proposed law was later scrapped.

Several prominent Catholics, including billionaire businessman and publisher Jimmy Lai, have been arrested and imprisoned for attending demonstrations.

Prior to her imprisonment, Chow was banned from standing in Hong Kong elections following election law reforms. She was accused of “sedition” under the terms of the National Security Law, imposed on Hong Kong by the mainland government on July 1, 2020. 

The law effectively criminalizes many forms of political speech or criticism of the government; Chow, Wong, and Nathan Law, another pro-democracy activist currently seeking political refuge in the U.K., were forced to dissolve Demosisto within days of it being imposed.

Chow has credited her Catholic education and upbringing with inspiring her political activism. In a 2019 interview, she said:

“I’m a Catholic. I do think that my participation in social movements is affected by my religion. When I was young, my dad brought me to the church. We need to learn, we have to care, about the people who are being oppressed and people who are weak and need help. Not only Christianity and Catholics, many of the religions in the world, the basic [lesson] is that we need to learn how to care about people who need help and people who are weak. So that’s why I care.”

Since the imposition of the 2020 National Security Law, Catholic and other educational institutions have come under sustained pressure from the government to ensure they instill the appropriate level of “patriotism” in students.

Catholic schools in the diocese have also been told to ensure that teachers “foster the correct values on national identity” and ensure respect for Chinese national symbols in Catholic schools,  including the Chinese flag and national anthem.

In April, the University of Hong Kong disowned its own student union, accusing it of “political propaganda” against the state, and accused student leaders of "inflammatory and potentially unlawful public statements and unfounded allegations against the university" and of “smearing” the Hong Kong government’s controversial election law overhaul.

While the Catholic community of the Diocese of Hong Kong remains divided between those actively supporting pro-democracy resistance to Beijing’s attempts to roll back civil liberties in Hong Kong, and those who support the effort to recognize the territory as a more integrated part of China, several Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, and auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, O.F.M. of Hong Kong, have both been seen attending public demonstrations in the past. 

In May, 2021, Pope Francis named Fr. Stephen Chow, SJ, as the next Bishop of Hong Kong. While Chow said the Church in Hong Kong needs to overcome internal divisions, he also highlighted the need to preserve its religious freedom.

“Religious freedom is a fundamental human right,” Chow said during his first press conference after being announced as the next bishop. “We would like to remember it in our dialogues with the government, so that it is not forgotten.”

Chow also confirmed he has previously attended public memorial gatherings to mark the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre, including in 2019. Hong Kong has been the only part of Chinese territory where public gatherings have been permitted to mark the killing of hundreds of pro-reform demonstrators in Beijing more than 30 years ago. 

Following the National Security Law’s imposition last year, annual events to mark the massacre, including a candlelit vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park, were banned this year, with thousands of extra police deployed to arrest potential demonstrators.