Hong Kong barrister Chow Hang-tung told HKFP she would find some way to commemorate the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, a week before her reported detention by police on Friday. It comes as authorities again ban the commemorative candlelight vigil organised by the group she heads amid what she calls a climate of fear.

Chow heard of the police ruling last Thursday, just before visiting recently jailed democrats Albert Ho and Figo Chan in the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre.

When she collected her phone from correctional officers after the hour-long meeting, it showed dozens of missed calls about the decision to ban the event for a second year, which had been held for three decades in Victoria Park on June 4.

“I first learned about the ban through a reporter who called me right before the prison visit, but I had not received any information,” said Chow, vice-chair woman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. “It felt like a different world when I left the reception centre.”

Chow Hang-tung. Photo: Ocean Tham/HKFP.

Despite her exhaustion, the 36-year-old had to jump in to help other alliance members draw up documents for a meeting with an appeal board, which upheld the force’s decision. Police cited Covid-19 concerns, as they had in 2020, though local media has reported they will deploy up to 7,000 officers to prevent the gathering.

“When we cannot organise officially, we act like water… people already know what to do on June 4,” Chow wrote on Facebook shortly after the panel rejected the group’s appeal last Saturday.

“I also state here, in my personal capacity, that I will keep this 32-year promise at 8 pm on June 4,” she added. “[C]ompromising… will only in return see an infinite expansion of the red line.”

Over the past few weeks, Chow has given back-to-back interviews about the 32nd anniversary of Beijing’s bloody clampdown on the student-led democracy movement. She shouldered the media burden because the alliance chairman Lee Cheuk-yan and fellow vice-chair Albert Ho are both serving more than a year behind bars for their roles in various protests in 2019.

The alliance secretary Richard Tsoi was also sentenced last week over a banned 2019 demonstration alongside Lee and Ho. His 14-month prison term was suspended for two years.

In the absence of these prominent activists, Chow, who had maintained a low profile in the past, had no choice but to step up and lead the pro-democracy group in an increasingly challenging environment.

After the crackdown. Photo: HRIC archive, courtesy of Gail Butler, Libby Schmalz.

“The pressure is not just [on] the leadership… the biggest challenge might be this overall climate of fear. People are afraid of associating with us,” Chow said.

So far, at least eight individuals and groups have withdrawn from the alliance, which originally had over 200 member organisations. The latest to quit was the Hong Kong Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood, which cited the Beijing-imposed national security law on Wednesday as a reason to cut ties.

The alliance has also been under pressure from the pro-Beijing camp as some figures described one of its founding goals – “End one-party dictatorship” – a reference to the Chinese Communist Party – as being subversive.

They claimed it was incompatible with the security law enacted on June 30 last year, which outlaws secession, subversion, collusion with foreign powers and terrorist acts. A question mark hangs over the legality of the slogan after Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Tuesday said the issue was too complicated to give a yes-no answer.

Thousands of people defied a police and gathered in Victoria Park on June 4, 2020 to remember the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Photo: May James/HKFP.

Chow saw the claims of illegality as “warnings” from the authorities, but refuses to address them as legal questions. The barrister, who has been practising in Hong Kong since 2016, said there was “no sensible” legal discussion to be held in relation to the “arbitrary and vague” security legislation.

“If you say it [the slogan] is subversive, what is subversive is the organisation, because that’s our goal. That’s our rationale. That’s our reason for existence,” she said.

She said it was now up to the government to make a “political decision” on whether organisations like theirs – which call for multi-party democracy in China – can continue to operate.

But Chow made it clear that the alliance would not ditch the slogan, one of five dating back to the alliance’s inception in 1989. “If we change that, we are not us anymore.”

The annual June 4 vigil was a major source of income for the alliance, which relies on donations. It also gave Chow her introduction to politics.

Photo: Sam Lee/United Social Press.

She attended her first June 4 vigil as a primary school pupil with her mother, and since then maintained her commitment to light a candle in Victoria Park every year.

Her role as a participant began to shift in the 2000s when she attended the University of Cambridge, where no one commemorated or even talked about what had happened at Tiananmen Square.

“[I]t just felt wrong not to do something that day every year,” she said.

After organising public events in the UK to remember the crackdown, Chow joined the Hong Kong Alliance in 2010 as a part-time staffer and continued working as a regular volunteer.

She took up the vice-chair position six years later, aligning herself with seasoned politicians Lee and Ho as the top leadership in the alliance.

Lee Cheuk-yan (left) and Albert Ho (right) of the Hong Kong Alliance are both serving more than a year’s time in prison over various protests in 2019. Photos: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Chow said the group never had a strict hierarchy – all decisions were made through deliberation with other committee members.

“I didn’t just learn from the leadership, but actually more from the common volunteers who have been with the alliance since 1989. They have nothing to earn personally, no one even knows them. But they have persistence,” she said.

Chow is one of the few Hong Kong pro-democracy figures who remain at liberty. Dozens of democrats are either detained pending trial under the security law, or have already been sentenced to prison terms over the 2019 protests.

The alliance vice-chairwoman may soon suffer the same fate, as she is facing criminal prosecution over last year’s banned vigil and was also reportedly arrested early on Friday, though police have yet to confirm it.

Chow Hang-tung. Photo: Ocean Tham/HKFP.

Watching her fellow activists disappearing behind bars one by one, Chow said she was of course upset. But she admitted she could not avoid “feeling a bit numb” at times during the lengthy court proceedings.

“[I] sometimes cry as well when some dear friends got arrested. But you sort of get used to dealing with that emotion… sometimes you just have to pack it all up and continue your work,” she said, adding hiking helps her deal with her pent-up feelings.

Several detained pro-democracy figures including former lawmaker Eddie Chu, who is awaiting a national security trial, have announced they are quitting politics. To Chow, however, this is a path she refuses to go down.

The activist said she did not consider herself a politician since she had not joined any party or run in an election. But she is set on staying in the political realm, to act on behalf of her fellow democrats behind bars.

Chow Hang-tung. Photo: Ocean Tham/HKFP.

“It never crossed my mind to quit politics… when people get arrested, when human rights abuses occur, we should speak up. If you call that politics, that’s something I would never quit,” she said.

Asked what the alliance would do if future candlelight vigils are prohibited, Chow still has hope that Hongkongers will find a way to remember the events of 1989.

“This promise has lasted for 32 years. I think it is sort of ingrained in the Hong Kong people’s DNA. I’m still hopeful that people will remember and people will do something.”

Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.