The Hong Kong democracy activist Agnes Chow has been released from jail after serving more than six months for taking part in unauthorised assemblies during 2019 anti-government protests that triggered a crackdown on dissent by mainland China.
Chow, 24, was greeted by a crowd of journalists as she left the Tai Lam women’s prison on Saturday. She got out of a prison van and into a private car without making any remarks.
A small group of supporters were on the scene – the government has threatened to jail those it deems in violation of a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on the territory a year ago.
The legislation has resulted in the arrests of leading democracy activists including Joshua Wong and Jimmy Lai, who are serving prison terms. Others have sought asylum abroad. Critics say China is routinely violating commitments it made to preserve freedoms promised to Hong Kong for 50 years after the handover to Chinese rule in 1997.
The 2019 protests began as peaceful marches against proposed legislation that could have seen criminal suspects sent to China to face possible mistreatment and unfair trials. Though the legislation was withdrawn, protests swelled to demand universal suffrage and an investigation into police abuses.
Chow’s jailing was for involvement in protests outside Hong Kong’s police headquarters in June, 2019; she was arrested two months later and sentenced in December 2020.
In face of the protests, China fought back with the national security law, which has snuffed out dissent in the semi-autonomous territory. Chow was also arrested in August 2020 under the national security law – which had been imposed by Beijing in June 2020 – under suspicion of colluding with foreign forces; she has not so far been charged under that law.
Defenders of the national security law say it intends to ensure those running the city are Chinese patriots committed to public order and economic development.
China has also overhauled Hong Kong’s legislative council to give pro-Beijing delegates an overwhelming majority. Media outlets are now almost completely dominated by pro-Beijing business groups and independent booksellers have become rare. The national security law has given authorities broad powers to monitor speech online, making it difficult to organise opposition gatherings or express views critical of the government or Beijing.
An annual candlelight vigil for victims of the bloody suppression of the 1989 pro-democracy movement centred on Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was cancelled this year for the second time. Hong Kong censors this week were given the power to ban films that endanger national security, prompting concerns that freedom of expression is being further curtailed in a city once known for its vibrant arts and film scene.
The Hong Kong chief executive, Carrie Lam, who is under US sanctions, has been the face of the crackdown on dissent, although she is believed to be acting entirely on orders from Beijing, whose Communist party leaders have long regarded Hong Kong as a potential incubator of opposition that could spread through the country.
Meanwhile the main representative of the Chinese government in Hong Kong said on Saturday that people trying to turn the city into a “pawn in geopolitics” were the “real enemies” and Beijing was the true defender of the city’s special status. Luo Huining, director of China’s Hong Kong Liaison Office, told a forum that the financial hub, a former British colony handed over to China in 1997, remained one of the world’s most competitive economies, the South China Morning Post reported.
“Those trying to turn Hong Kong into a pawn in geopolitics, a tool in curbing China, as well as a bridgehead for infiltrating the mainland, are destroying the foundation of one country, two systems,” Luo said, referring to the formula agreed when Britain handed the city back aimed at preserving its freedoms and role as a financial hub. Luo said the ruling Communist Party was “the creator, leader, implementer and defender of one country, two systems”.
Despite such assurances, many Hong Kong residents have over recent years become worried about what they see as attempts by Beijing to curtail its freedoms.
With Associated Press and Reuters
• This article was amended on 15 June 2021. Contrary to the text, a sub-heading said Agnes Chow was jailed under the national security law. A sentence has been inserted to make clear she was later arrested under that law, but to date not charged.