Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, two of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy activists, have been handed jail terms for illegal assembly. Wong, who has spent time in jail on three previous occasions, was sentenced to 13 and a half months in prison. Chow, who is also facing charges of “inciting secession” under the Hong Kong National Security Law, received 10 months. A third defendant, Ivan Lam, was sentenced to seven months. The three were changed in relation to their participation in a protest on June 21 of last year, when thousands of demonstrators surrounded the Hong Kong Police Force Headquarters.
The Washington Post’s Shibani Mahtani and Theodora Yu reported on the sentencing hearing on Wednesday:
In delivering the sentence, the magistrate, Lily Wong, said community service or a noncustodial penalty would be inappropriate for Lam and Joshua Wong, citing their criminal records — all relating to their political activism. The June 21, 2019, protest at police headquarters was “well planned,” the judge said, as she cited messages sent by Joshua Wong through the messaging app Telegram urging people to gather.
Although the protest was peaceful, “the court needs to remember the importance of protecting public order,” she said before a courtroom packed with the defendants’ supporters and observers who lined up for hours to get in.
[…] Chow, who turns 24 on Thursday, sobbed as she learned she would serve 10 months — her first stint in prison — and her supporters in the courtroom broke down in tears.
Other charges against Wong and Chow could extend their time in custody. Chow was recently arrested under Beijing’s new national security law for allegedly inciting secession, punishable by life in prison. [Source]
The three have been remanded in prison since they were found guilty last week, with their treatment closely followed by the Hong Kong media. After prison officials claimed to have identified a “strange object” in Wong’s stomach during an x-ray examination, he was held in solitary medical isolation for 72 hours in a room fully lit for 24 hours a day. In a letter from prison, Wong described his medical isolation as “worse than regular solitary confinement,” writing that he was forced to use his face mask as a blindfold to sleep, and had to defecate on a plastic plate so that officers could check for drugs. No objects or contraband substances were ultimately identified.
The events that led to the trio’s arrest were among the earliest demonstrations of Hong Kong’s months-long political unrest last year. On June 21, 12 days after the first million-person march against the proposed extradition bill, thousands of protestors surrounded the police headquarters demanding that authorities release demonstrators who had been arrested the week before. Wong, who had been released from prison only three days earlier, delivered a speech denouncing the government’s categorization of peaceful protests the week prior as a “riot.” Chow and Lam did not speak at the event.
Joshua Wong is among those speaking to crowds outside police HQ. They want to go inside to submit a complaint about police conduct during a demonstration last week pic.twitter.com/ISgo2LyBK3
— Daniel Victor (@bydanielvictor) June 21, 2019
But unlike the 2014 Umbrella Movement in which Wong and Chow played pivotal roles, the 2019 protests were leaderless, with many events organized on Telegram and local social media platform LIHKG. Observers noted that well-known activists like Wong were largely ignored at the June 21 event:
I remembe how most in the crowds ignored @joshuawongcf, freshly out of jail, in the June / July protests last year. When the police HQ was surrounded, political figures had a hard time getting the crowd to do what they wanted. Most discourse and call for action came from LIHKG.
— Lok. (@sumlokkei) December 2, 2020
The irony of this trio being jailed for the incident in question was that it was the day when 2014 protest leaders was shown to have no sway over the leaderless 2019 movement. @joshuawongcf in particular was repeatedly ignored by the crowds and left before the night was over. https://t.co/bR4DHZTKHa
— Kevin Yam 任建峰 (@kevinkfyam) December 2, 2020
For The Atlantic, Tim McLaughlin wrote about the diminished on-the-ground role played by well-known political figures such as Wong and Chow in the 2019 protests:
The sentence handed down on Wednesday is Wong’s longest, and it highlights the authorities’ obsessive focus on him: Compared with his 2012 and 2014 efforts, Wong’s role in last year’s protests was limited, and he was even a relatively minor player at the police-headquarters demonstration (which I attended).
Last summer, when protests against a proposed extradition bill took hold, Wong was in jail, serving a two-month sentence stemming from the 2014 protests. He emerged to join a movement that was far different from the one he had led five years earlier. The protests jettisoned occupations for more free-flowing protests, in order to thwart aggressive police tactics. And, most notably, the movement went to great lengths to remain leaderless, in part to avoid the divisions that plagued the Umbrella Movement. Reporters who erroneously described Wong as a protest leader often found themselves the target of a swarm of angry social-media users. Some protesters were hostile to Wong, citing the failure of his preferred tactics in 2014 to bring about wide-scale change and his ability to garner so much of the spotlight. [Source]
The magistrate that sentenced the trio on Wednesday disagreed with this assessment of the defendants’ involvement, however.
Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam and Agnes Chow were "all active participants."
Wong and Chow directed the crowd towards the police HQ "in the manner of a leader." (2/4) pic.twitter.com/lrfhc0bNOH
— Holmes Chan (@holmeschan_) December 2, 2020
The changed dynamic in 2019 highlighted how Hong Kong’s democracy movement evolved over time. The trio jailed on Wednesday were part of a generation of activists that had come to prominence at a time of growing popular frustration with “establishment” democrats – pro-democracy politicians who worked within institutions such as the Legislative Council to oppose the government. For young protestors, those career politicians were too willing to compromise and ineffective in their by-the-books opposition. (Last month, those “moderates” in LegCo were disqualified by Beijing anyway.) But by 2019, even young activists such as Wong and Chow, whose political party Demosisto had once called for “self-determination” but never independence, were seen as not radical enough by some, and marginalized at key demonstrations.
In July, the Hong Kong National Security Law again transformed the roles of pro-democracy activists. Days before the national security law took effect, some of the earliest generation of pro-democracy advocates, including former number two official Anson Chan, publicly declared an end to their involvement in politics. Others, such as Martin Lee, the “father of Hong Kong’s democracy movement,” have declined all media invitations since the law passed. In June of this year, Demosisto, the one-time political party set up in 2016 by the jailed trio along with fellow activist Nathan Law, was disbanded, one day before the National Security Law was introduced. Law subsequently departed the city for London, pledging to continue advocating for Hong Kong while abroad, and is now allegedly wanted by the Hong Kong police on national security charges. Younger activists have become public advocates for Hong Kong’s democracy movement abroad, petitioning and appearing before Western governments to appeal for their support. On Wednesday, The New York Times published an op-ed by two activists, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, urging President-elect Biden to “keep the pressure on Hong Kong.”
But Wong, Chow, and Lam chose to stay. Following their sentencing on Wednesday, Law took to Instagram to urge supporters not to despair, and not to forget them:
When the news came out, my first reaction was that I didn’t know how to react.
Now that they’re in jail, to be honest, I don’t know how long it’ll be before I’ll see them again.
Agnes has another charge under the National Security Law.
Joshua is facing prosecution for [participation in the vigil on] June 4th.
[…] They are political leaders, they are also my best friends.
You see their courage and their commitment, I see their youth and the struggle behind their brave faces.
[…] It’s in times of depression that we must turn our frustration into our drive.
If their dedication pushes people to take one more step, it will make everything worthwhile.
Do not despair, do not forget. [Source]