Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow Are Sentenced to Prison Over Hong Kong Protest

Activists denounced the prison terms for illegal assembly charges over a 2019 demonstration outside Police Headquarters.

Joshua Wong, center right, and Ivan Lam, center left, were led into a prison van before their court appearance in Hong Kong on Wednesday.
Joshua Wong, center right, and Ivan Lam, center left, were led into a prison van before their court appearance in Hong Kong on Wednesday.Credit...Kin Cheung/Associated Press
  • Dec. 2, 2020, nytimes

HONG KONG — Joshua Wong, a prominent pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong, was sentenced on Wednesday to more than a year in prison for his role in a protest last year, the latest blow to the city’s embattled political opposition.

To critics of the government, Mr. Wong’s prison sentence is an attempt to muzzle one of the most globally recognized figures of the city’s resistance to Beijing’s encroachment. Mr. Wong, 24, rose to prominence nearly a decade ago as a skinny, bespectacled teenager who rallied students to oppose what he saw as the Chinese Communist Party’s indoctrination in schools. His persistent activism has made him a key target in Beijing’s drive to quash dissent in the territory.

Mr. Wong was sentenced to 13 and a half months in prison, while Agnes Chow, a fellow activist, received 10 months. Ivan Lam, a third member of their disbanded political group, Demosisto, was sentenced to seven months. All three had faced up to three years in prison.

Their sentencing points to the wide-ranging nature of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive crackdown on political opposition in Hong Kong, which was roiled by months of antigovernment demonstrations last year.

Police officers carried a purple flag in July to warn protesters about actions that violate the new national security law.
Police officers carried a purple flag in July to warn protesters about actions that violate the new national security law.Credit...Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The police have arrested activists, journalists and politicians, while pro-Beijing voices have sought to pressure the city’s largely independent judiciary and freewheeling news media. China also moved to force the ouster of four lawmakers last month, prompting the mass resignation of the pro-democracy camp from the local legislature.

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This summer, China imposed a national security law on Hong Kong that grants the authorities sweeping powers to limit dissent. More than two dozen people have been arrested under it, including Ms. Chow and Jimmy Lai, the founder of the city’s biggest pro-democracy newspaper. Mr. Lai and two senior managers in his media group were charged on Wednesday with fraud, his newspaper, Apple Daily, reported.

Demosisto disbanded shortly after lawmakers in Beijing approved the security law in late June. The three former members of the group had pleaded guilty to unauthorized assembly charges over a June 2019 demonstration, when thousands of people gathered outside Police Headquarters in the early days of the mass protest movement that engulfed the city. The gathering was a display of both the public’s mounting anger at the police and also the ineffectiveness of the authorities’ attempts to quell the protests with tear gas and pepper spray.

Mr. Wong, who had been released from prison only days before the demonstration, was not as involved in organizing the protests as he had been in previous campaigns. But in sentencing Mr. Wong, the court pointed to his use of a loudspeaker in leading the crowd in protest chants as evidence of “incitement to knowingly take part in an unauthorized assembly.”

“No riots, only tyranny,” he chanted with the protesters.

Claudia Mo, a former lawmaker in Hong Kong from the pro-democracy camp, called the sentences “very saddening, but not unexpected.”

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“All these judicial prosecutions amount to persecution of our young,” she said. “They’re using Joshua Wong as an iconic figure in particular to issue this chilling message.” 

The charges against the activists stemmed from a demonstration outside Police Headquarters in June 2019.
The charges against the activists stemmed from a demonstration outside Police Headquarters in June 2019.Credit...Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The three activists have become symbols of the first generation in Hong Kong to grow up under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, many of whom increasingly feel alienated from the mainland government. They began campaigning nearly a decade ago, when Mr. Wong and Mr. Lam, 26, founded a group that led protests against a plan to introduce a national education curriculum in Hong Kong schools, which they attacked as “brainwashing.” They later helped rally huge protests against limits on direct elections in 2014, in what was known as the Umbrella Movement.

Last year, the three activists avoided taking part in the violent clashes between more confrontational demonstrators and the police, and instead used their prominence to explain the movement’s causes, particularly to an international audience. Ms. Chow, 23, who has been called the “Mulan” of the Hong Kong democracy movement, enjoys a wide following in Japan thanks to her Japanese-language skills.

After the three activists pleaded guilty to the charges last week, they were immediately jailed. Mr. Wong spent three days in solitary confinement because a scan had suggested he might have ingested a foreign object before his detention, according to Fernando Cheung, a former lawmaker who met with Mr. Wong on Saturday.

During that period, Mr. Wong had difficulty sleeping because his cell lights were left on 24 hours a day and he was subjected to regular medical checks, Mr. Cheung said. No foreign object was found, he added.

In a handwritten letter from prison, which a friend photographed and posted on his Twitter and Patreon accounts on Tuesday, Mr. Wong wrote that solitary confinement had been particularly trying: “Even though I have been imprisoned three times and have the experience, I still found it difficult to be sent suddenly to the ‘prison within a prison.’”

Mr. Wong also faces charges over a demonstration in October of last year and his participation in a June 4 memorial for the people killed in China’s 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing.

Mr. Wong was sentenced to three months in prison for contempt over the court-ordered dismantling of a protest camp in November 2014. He also served part of a six-month sentence on unlawful assembly charges that was later thrown out.

Ms. Chow, who had not previously been imprisoned, said she was not adjusting well to conditions in detention and was unable to sleep at night, according to a message relayed to friends who had visited her in jail and posted to her Facebook account on Sunday.

Agnes Chow arriving for her court appearance last week.
Agnes Chow arriving for her court appearance last week.Credit...Tyrone Siu/Reuters

“I understand that I will probably be sentenced to prison on Wednesday, so my morale has been low, and I’ve been very worried,” she was quoted as saying.

Ms. Chow was arrested earlier this year on suspicion of violating the new national security law by inciting secession. But she has not been charged in that case.

The activists’ supporters said they worried that the three could face more prison time on additional charges. “Sentences could pile up,” Nathan Law, a Hong Kong activist who now lives in London, wrote on Twitter. “To be honest, I have no idea when the trio could step out of the prison.”

Mr. Cheung said that Mr. Wong had found one positive thing about returning to detention: He no longer had to face constant questions about what was next for Hong Kong’s besieged democracy movement.

“He doesn’t have to deal with that for now,” Mr. Cheung said. “People understand that he’s incapable of doing much in prison. The burden is now on people on the outside.”

Austin Ramzy is a Hong Kong reporter, focusing on coverage of the city and also of regional and breaking news. He previously covered major events around Asia from Taipei and Beijing. @austinramzy

Tiffany May covers news in China and Asia, focusing recently on the protests in Hong Kong, where she is based. She graduated from Columbia University. @nytmay