Christian activists arrested in Hong Kong ahead of weekend's 'leaderless' protests

Agnes Chow. Photo courtesy of Chow’s  Facebook page .

Agnes Chow. Photo courtesy of Chow’s Facebook page.

Updated Aug. 30: Pro-democracy and outspoken Christian Hong Kong activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow were arrested by Hong Kong police the morning of Aug. 30, according to their political organization Demosisto. Wong was arrested first, then Chow was taken from her home a short while later, both to Wan Chai police station. The charges are of participating in an unlawful assembly on June 21 surrounding police headquarters in Wan Chai, and Wong is also charged with organizing an unlawful assembly. Both were released on bail the same day, and Hong Kongers were warned that anyone who participates in a planned protest over the weekend would be resisted with force and possibly arrested. This weekend is the five-year anniversary of when China took away free elections from Hong Kong, and marks five years since the sit-in pro-democracy protests named the Umbrella Revolution that brought then-student leaders Wong and Chow to prominence.

Vice-chairperson of Demosisto, Issac Cheng, said on Friday:

“We are furious about the large-scale arrest on the day before 31 August, an attempt to impose white terror to prevent from further protests. It is completely ridiculous that the police target specific prominent figures of social movement in the past and framing them as the leaders of the anti-extradition bill protests. The 12-week long protests are well-known as leaderless. We once again reiterate that Demosisto has never taken up any leading role during the movement.”

On June 21, thousands protested in front of the police headquarters to demand that the city’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam, also a Catholic, resign. The protesters, who oppose a bill that would allow China to extradite accused criminals to the mainland and also protest general interference from China, threw eggs at the police building and scribbled graffiti on the walls, according to Hong Kong Free Press.

The following is a summary and conversation with Chow on Aug. 19.

Agnes Chow was 15 when she saw photos on Facebook of students her age protesting the Chinese government’s plan to overhaul education in Hong Kong to fit the Communist Party’s ideas of “moral and national education.” Chow joined the sit-in demonstrations outside government offices and has remained active in pro-democracy advocacy ever since.

In 2016, Chow founded the political party Demosisto with two other prominent activists: Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, often called the poster boy of Hong Kong’s self-determination movement and an evangelical Christian outspoken about his faith. (Wong stars in the Netflix documentary Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower.)

Law was elected to office in 2016 but quickly barred for failing to take his oath to China as directed. Chow prepared to run for office by renouncing her British citizenship and won an election in 2018 by campaigning for Hong Kong’s self-determination, but she too was barred when the government decided that self-determination contradicts Hong Kong’s agreement with China for “one country, two systems.” At age 21, she would have been the youngest lawmaker in Hong Kong’s history.

While only 12 percent of Hong Kong is Christian, the hymn “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” became the rallying cry of the most recent months of protests. The song allowed protesters, both religious and not, to legally assemble on the streets since religious assemblies are legal when some protest assemblies are not. Hong Kong’s Christian community is split over supporting or denouncing the protests, which are already causing financial losses, but churches who do support the protests are offering more than thoughts and prayers.

On Sunday, Aug. 18, an estimated 1.7 million people protested on the streets in Hong Kong despite rainfall. (That’s 25 percent of the population.)

Many of the protest leaders, like Chow, say their faith is what inspires them.

Does your faith inspire your pro-democracy activism? If so, how?

Chow: 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 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. 

I believe that many other Christians and Catholics in Hong Kong are very, they care a lot about society. At the beginning of this movement, many of the Christian participants of this movement sang “Hallelujah to the Lord” often in this movement, especially for example when the police are going to stop our protest or when there are some guys who are criticizing us, they will always sing “Hallelujah to the Lord.” So they put their religious beliefs into their participations in the society and in the social movement.

Some people see the protests as Christianity versus the Chinese Communist Party. Do you think that’s accurate?

Chow: Well many of the participants, but not all of course, many of us are Christian. Although it’s not really a direct conflict between Christianity and the Communist Party. I would say it’s just a fight of many of the Hong Kong people, Hong Kong people who have religious background and who have no religious background. We are the same because we are fighting for our basic rights and freedom, but I do think that the religious belief and what we learn from our religion and the Bible gives us our belief and courage to fight for freedom and rights for Hong Kong people.

Are there pastors and priests who are addressing the protests in their sermons and teachings in church or do most try to keep politics out of church?

Chow: Different churches and different pastors may have their own different political stance and they might do different things. In Hong Kong, there are churches who support the democratic movement and there are churches who don’t really support this kind of movement. For example, during the movement when there are large-scale protests or assemblies, sometimes there is chaos when the police use violence to suppress the protesters. Some churches would open to protesters overnight to give them a place to rest, toilets, and to give them food, water, etc. But there are still some churches in Hong Kong who don’t support these kinds of democratic movements.

Is that common for churches to host protesters like that?

Chow: I wouldn’t say it’s common, but this movement is a larger-scale movement in the Hong Kong history, that’s why many churches are doing things differently compared to before.

So in the past couple of months that has happened?

Chow: Yes.

Are there any specific tenants in the Bible or Catholic Church that inspire your activism?

Chow: I wouldn’t say it’s a sentence from the Bible, but in Hong Kong one of the leaders in our Catholic community called Joseph Cheng—he has been very outspoken on different issues regarding human rights, political freedom and also religious freedom. He is always being criticized by the Communist Party for advocating human rights and criticizing the Chinese government. He is brilliant and really a very influential figure for many of the Catholics in Hong Kong or even all Christians. In the whole religious circle, he is the most outspoken one. He really influenced many Catholics and Christians a lot.

Do you think one reason Christians are influential is because of the demographics that Christians tend to be more educated and middle or upper-middle class in Hong Kong?

Chow: I don’t think it’s related to education. One of the reasons is that they have a very high sense of belonging to their own religious community so they can easily influence their friends or others to participate in this movement, so that’s why when one person in that community talks something about this movement or encourages someone to participate, they will easily influence each other because of this high sense of belonging.

What are the threats to religious freedom in Hong Kong today?

Chow: We can see very clearly that the Beijing government keeps suppressing religious freedom in mainland China, for not only Christians or Catholics but different religions are also being suppressed. Although we can still have so-called religious freedom in Hong Kong, but with interference with the Beijing government becoming more and more serious in the future, religious freedom in Hong Kong might also be affected.

What are people afraid of happening?

Chow: I would not say afraid, but Hong Kong people are trying our best today to fight for our basic human rights and freedom, which is a very important core value to Hong Kong, and religious freedom is one of those values of course. If the Beijing government keeps suppressing and interfering with Hong Kong’s internal issues and keeps interfering with our important core values, these rights and freedoms might disappear one day. No Hong Kong people want to see this happening, so that’s why we’re fighting so hard.

There was once a Hong Kong girl who wrote a letter about the Hong Kong situation and this movement to the pope. She had a chance to meet him for a few seconds so that’s why she wrote a letter. It’s also a way we’re trying to raise our issues to the international community [by appealing to the Church].

Why is that so many faces of the pro-democracy movement like yourself are so young?

Chow: I don’t think it’s a situation that’s only happened in Hong Kong. In different countries, young people are always among the most important group of people who advocate social changes in the society. I think that when the so-called adults are busy taking care of their family, job, etc, young people are able to go into the streets and form public opinion, and we are a very important part of the society. But in this movement, although many of the participants are young, many other adults and even elderly people came out to support and even join assemblies and protests.