Hong Kong pro-democracy activists Agnes Chow, Joshua Wong, and Ivan Lam were sentenced to between seven and nearly 14 months in prison today for their roles in a protest last year, when thousands of people surrounded the police headquarters to demand the withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill.
Wong was sentenced to thirteen-and-a-half months, Chow to 10 months, and Lam seven months.
The three had last week pleaded guilty to charges of inciting people to join the protest, which authorities deemed an illegal assembly because police had not given approval for the demonstration. Chow had pleaded guilty to taking part in the protest, while Wong pleaded guilty to organizing it. Supporters saw their guilty pleas not as admissions of wrongdoing, but indictments of the Hong Kong government’s dismantling of the rule of law and persecution of political opponents.
While Wong and Lam have previously been jailed for their roles in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, this is the first time that Chow is facing imprisonment. The sentencing also happens to come a day before her 24th birthday.
Last week, Chow was named by the BBC as one of the world’s 100 most influential women of 2020. But though she is being jailed for her political activism, she has long cast herself as a regular millennial with a love for Japanese pop culture. It’s that characterization, boosted by her Japanese-language skills, that has earned her celebrity status in Japan as the most recognizable pro-democracy figure from Hong Kong. Her honorifics now include “goddess of democracy” and “real Mulan”—a reference to a historic fighter who’s been the subject of two Disney films.
“I think the public sees two Agnes Chows,” Chow said of herself in an interview with Stand News, a Hong Kong digital news outlet. “There’s Agnes Chow as a political figure. But on the other side, there’s a 23-year-old Agnes Chow who likes to watch anime and is terrible at cooking.”
When Chow was arrested at her home in August on suspicion of violating the sweeping new national security law—she was among the first activists to be charged with “colluding with foreign forces” under it—a #FreeAgnes hashtag quickly went viral in Japan. She had also told Japanese media the chart-topping song “Fukyowaon” by the Japanese all-female dance group Keyakizaka46 played in her head as she was being led away by the police. The song’s lyrics describe standing up for one’s beliefs and resisting the pressure to give in.
Perhaps testament to her media savvy but also her girl-next-door persona, Chow said (link in Chinese) she offered the detail about the Japanese song “not to satisfy the media’s desire for a soundbite…but because I’m otaku”—a Japanese term used to describe someone who’s obsessed with manga, anime, and games.
Chow also has a huge following on YouTube. In a year when Hong Kong saw its freedoms dismantled at remarkable pace under Beijing’s authoritarian rule, Chow has deadpanned that the biggest change for her in 2020 is her new identity as a YouTuber. Her channel, established in February, has since amassed some 325,000 subscribers. Many of the videos feature her speaking fluent Japanese, overlaid with game-show style sound effects and animations.
In her most recent video, filmed two days before she pleaded guilty and was remanded in custody, Chow visited a fruit shop that sources produce from Japan, as part of a campaign to promote businesses that are supportive of the pro-democracy movement. She fan-girled over purple yams from Kagoshima and giant persimmons from Ehime. Then she explained why she decided to visit this particular shop.
“Because the police has my passport, I suspect I won’t be able to travel Japan for a long while,” she said. Any visit to Japan will now be further delayed by her nearly year-long prison term.