As the first anniversary of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement nears, student activist Agnes Chow of Scholarism has urged Hongkongers to shift their focus away from commemorating the mass protests and instead ponder the way forward in the city’s democratic movement.

In an interview with HKFP, Chow, 18, said that a lot can be learned from last year’s demonstrations, which she called “a failure in terms of result.”

Scholarism core member Agnes Chow talks to HKFP at Tamar Park, Admiralty. Photo: Vivienne Zeng/HKFP.

“We should learn from [our] experience last year and think about what should we do in the future… Like regarding the amendment of the Basic Law, regarding the rewriting of the Basic Law, regarding our road to self-determination in Hong Kong. We should start to use our experience, our failures before, to try to make a better movement in the future.”

Scholarism, one of the most prominent and outspoken student groups during the 79-day Umbrella Movement, has joined other groups to advocate for the amendment of the Basic Law since the city’s constitutional reform package was rejected by the Legislative Council.

Scholarism leaders Joshua Wong and Agnes at a protest in 2014. Photo: Stand News

However, the idea of amending the Basic Law has been criticised as impractical due to the legal complications involved. Chow admitted that it’s a far-away goal to amend Hong Kong’s mini-constitution because any change will have to be made “inside the framework of the government.”

Instead, democracy fighters should think creatively, she said.

“For Scholarism, I think it’s very important to think out of the box, to think out of the whole political system. The first step is to fight for a referendum system in Hong Kong.”

Chow said building an unofficial referendum system which regularly engages the public to vote on issues they care about can help people to understand the true meaning of democracy.

Agnes Chow at a press conference on September 22. Photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

“We want to tell people that democracy is not only elections and not only universal suffrage. Democracy includes lots of things, including lifestyle, including how do you decide, how you make decisions in your life… Referendums can really represent the meaning of democracy, or you could say direct democracy, because people can directly voice out their opinions.”

While Scholarism has no concrete plans on how to build the referendum system, the student group as well as the Hong Kong Federation of Students will host forums to discuss the issue with the public, Chow revealed. The first forums will be held outside the legislative compound on September 26-27.

Political Pressure

Chow stepped out of the spotlight midway through the Umbrella Movement last year by resigning as spokesperson of Scholarism. At the time, she said she was facing “heavy pressure” and experiencing “extreme confusion and fatigue.” A year later, she admitted it was “political pressure” that forced her to make the decision, but she refused to elaborate on what exactly she encountered.

“This pressure did not come from my school, not from my friends, not the pan-democrats, not the media, but real political pressure. So I had no choice at that time and I had to quit.”

Scholarism leaders Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong during the Umbrella Movement. Photo: Stand News

Quitting the high-profile position make her life easier, Chow said, adding the situation got even better after the protests ended. But now she has to face the legal fallout of joining the civil disobedience action. In January, she received a call from the police telling her she will be arrested on a later date. At the time she told her fans on Facebook that she was “very scared” but would not quit partaking in pro-democracy social movements.

The 18-year-old is not facing any charges at the moment but some of her friends, including Scholarism leader Joshua Wong, have been charged with unlawful assembly, inciting others to take part in unlawful assembly and obstructing police.

Chow said she’s mentally prepared to be arrested again or even jailed, but she could not imagine her friends or family being politically targeted because of her. “If somehow my participation [in social movements], under such kind of terrible regime, affects the people around me, it will be a very terrible thing for me.”

Another Mass Movement?

A year after Hong Kong saw its longest running mass demonstration, many have wondered whether it could ever happen again. Chow acknowledged that some may feel hopeless after the protests failed to achieve any tangible results – but she is not disheartened.

“Some people say we should use more violence… In my opinion I will still believe in the power of social movements.”

Agnes Chow stands at the Civic Square in Admiralty during last year’s Umbrella Movement. Photo: Joey Kwok

The student activist said she believes the public can be mobilised again to join a mass movement, but it will not necessarily take the form of an occupation, and it won’t happen in the near future.

“We should continue to promote our ideas, promote our targets and goals to the general public. And when the public truly understands what we are fighting for, what our target is, what we really want to do – maybe it’ll already be half a year, or a year from now. ”

“I believe that, in this situation, in this near-dictatorship of this country, and also in Hong Kong, we have a very undemocratic government that seldom listens to people’s opinions. And we only have rights to vote for half of our legislative council. In this kind of situation, people will stand up and fight again.”

Vivienne Zeng

Vivienne Zeng is a journalist from China with three years' experience covering Hong Kong and mainland affairs. She has an MA in journalism from the University of Hong Kong. Her work has been featured on outlets such as Al Jazeera+ and MSNBC.