Chow hang-tung, barrister and vice-chairperson of the now-defunct Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, is among 24 democrats charged over last year’s banned Tiananmen Massacre vigil. She, along with media tycoon Jimmy Lai and activist Gwyneth Ho were the only defendants who pleaded not guilty.

Chow Hang-tung
Chow Hang-tung. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

Chow delivered her own mitigation plea below at the District Court in front of Judge Amanda Woodcock on Monday ahead of her sentencing.

Your Honour, you will not hear from me any moving life story and personal particulars, for this trial is not about me.

What has been put on trial here is perhaps the last candlelight vigil in Victoria Park for a long time to come, and definitely the last time that the Hong Kong Alliance could appear in Victoria Park on June 4th now that the Hong Kong Alliance was “killed” by the Government. It is a trial of this 31 years of tradition, this decades-long symbol of resistance that has been forcibly put to an end, first through the present prosecution, then continued through ever-escalating measures by the authorities.

Let us not delude ourselves that this is all about COVID-19 and that the criminalization of the vigil is only an exceptional measure at an exceptional time. What happened here is instead one step in the systemic erasure of history, both of the Tiananmen Massacre and Hong Kong’s own history of civic resistance.

The fact that this case relies heavily on publicly collected evidence that are no longer publicly available, either because the media publishing them had shut down, or the organisation hosting them had been banned, is saying something about the kind of repression and fear that has swept over Hong Kong in a mere one and a half year time. The shrinking, no, the collapse of the space for free expression, association and political action, is a prevalent experience that is every bit as common and as painful, if not more painful, than the COVID-19 situation in this city.

Yet while the Court sees fit to take judicial notice of the situation of a health crisis, it acts as if the parallel political crisis does not exist. It declines to hear any evidence of what “us” as an organisation, as a people, are experiencing in this pandemic of political repression. It refuses to see the wider context under which this case happened, in the name of focusing only on relevant and admissible evidence.

A collective act of some 20,000 people has been branded as “criminal,” yet their [experience] is irrelevant. History is irrelevant. Politics is irrelevant. Views of the purported decision makers matter but not of those commoners who were affected but excluded from the decision-making process. The reality of political repression never stands a chance in court since no evidence of the kind would ever be admissible.

In closing its eyes to the obvious the Court risks making itself irrelevant to the ailments of our times. In purporting to maintain political neutrality the Court is in effect affirming the unequal power wielded by the Government in instituting political charges against its opponents, emboldening the authorities to take over more restrictive action that squeeze out the rights of the citizens.

Throughout the trial the greatest injustice in this case remains hidden and unmentionable, for who are truly responsible for inciting hundreds of thousands of people to gather in Victoria Park on June 4th, years after years? They are the murderers who killed at will in Beijing 32 years ago, with tanks and dumdum guns. Yet the killers were never punished by any court of law, while those who demand truth and accountability were relentlessly criminalised. This has continued non-stop for 32 years in mainland China, and is now also happening in Hong Kong.

With power and law in their hands, the killers think that they can sit easily in their thrones by controlling the discourse of right and wrong, guilt and innocence. I for one, refuse to play along and submit to my so-called guilt. If this country still cares to maintain any resemblance of fairness, let’s put those murderers on trial instead of us. Let’s put those criminals behind bars instead of honouring them as our great leaders. Let the truth of Tiananmen Square be freely discussed and redress be given to the long suffering Tiananmen Mothers.

What stands condemned here is 31 years of effort in calling those criminals to account, in standing beside victims of the Massacre, in continuing their unfinished quest for democracy. In designating the vigil as criminal a proud tradition of Hong Kong stands condemned, signifying to the world that this city is no longer the haven for free speech it once was. One Country has completely overwhelmed Two Systems, leaving no trace of the kind of life we once took for granted, including the freedom to light a candle on June 4th.

What stands condemned here is also individual agency. The Court seems unable to grasp that each individual, being his or her own master, deciding his or her own action, should not be criminalised just because such act is echoed by many. It seems unable to appreciate that a leaderless movement where people are not just mindless followers in a crowd is possible. It is significant that this last vigil was also the first time where the vigil has no definite organiser, no centralised theme. The organising role of the Hong Kong Alliance faded into the background, with individuals taking up their own initiatives to give a much wider variety of meaning to candlelight on this day. Indeed the meaning of remembering Tiananmen has always been evolving, through the participation of hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers throughout the years. Hong Kong Alliance provided one platform but was never the sole driver. Different groups and people devised their own action to mark the date, thus participated in a continuous dialogue over the meaning and importance of commemorating the Massacre.

Victoria Park was filled with slogans, songs and flags that are related not only to June 4th, but at the heart was the freedom struggle in Hong Kong. We are different and decentralised, yet we act in solidarity, united by our conviction that the government’s blatant attempt at erasing history and suppressing activism must be resisted. When history is not forgotten, it lights our path to the future. As on that beautiful night last year, when candlelight lit up all over Hong Kong and in Victoria Park, the spirits of 1989 and the movement in Hong Kong rhymed. Such a diversified vigil, where every individual took up the responsibility to act and all kind of views were expressed, is perhaps a fitting finale to this 31 years of tradition, showing the way how this decades long campaign for justice and democracy will continue despite the fact that the Alliance is no more.

With the present trial and conviction, the meaning of remembering Tiananmen undergoes another evolution. No longer is it some far-away suffering whose relevance wanes as each day passed. Nay, now it is a suppression shared across time, across distance, across identities. When the label of “criminals” is casually put onto all who dared to light a candle on that day, the struggle becomes as much as about history as about protecting our rights and future, here at home. If those in power had wished to kill the [movement] with prosecution and imprisonment, they shall be sorely disappointed. Indeed what they have done is breathing new life into the movement, rallying a new generation to this long struggle for truth, justice and democracy.

People moved by conscience cannot be deterred by jail. Rest assured that the candle light will live on, despite bans and ever more restrictive “laws”. I am but a humble member of these people of conscience, and this is the only basis I ask the court to sentence me on. For when mass action is condemned, individual leniency is but a farce.

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.