OTTAWA: Agnes Chow was trapped in Hong Kong, had her passport seized and was branded a “foreign agent” after years as one of the city’s most prominent democracy activists.
Then, she said, police offered her an unexpected way out.
Pen a letter of repentance and travel to mainland China to view the headquarters of tech giant Tencent and other Chinese achievements – and in exchange, she would be allowed to study in Canada.
A leading voice in 2012, 2014 and 2019 protests against Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian rule in Hong Kong, Chow was jailed for seven months until 2021 and remained in legal limbo with a charge of “collusion” hanging over her head.
“It was very, very scary,” the 27-year-old said of her decision to travel with Hong Kong security officers to the mainland city of Shenzhen in August, gambling that the authorities would keep their side of the bargain.
“I was told by the police not to tell any people … not my lawyer, not my family, not any of my friends,” she told AFP in a video call from Toronto, where she broke her years-long silence this week to say she will jump bail and remain in Canada.
After her trip to Shenzhen, where she was repeatedly photographed, Chow was told to write another letter thanking the officers for showing her the greatness of China.
About a month later, authorities returned her passport and allowed her to fly to Canada.
But the terms of Chow’s bail still required her to return periodically to Hong Kong, where she no longer felt safe.
“I love Hong Kong so much but at the same time … I feel like Hong Kong for me is also a place of fear,” she told AFP.
In a social media post on Sunday, Chow revealed that she would remain indefinitely in Canada, citing “the situation in Hong Kong, my personal safety, my physical and mental health”.
In response, Hong Kong’s government vowed to pursue her “for life”.
In a press briefing Tuesday, Hong Kong leader John Lee said police had been trying to “give lenient treatment” to Chow.
But the former activist refuted that notion.
“For the past three years, there was nothing lenient … My freedom, my daily life, and my basic rights were all deprived,” she said.
“Foreign agent of whom? Which country? Obviously we can see that the government is just using the national security law or the legal system of Hong Kong as a political tool to smear and to suppress political dissidents.”
Following the massive, sometimes violent, pro-democracy protests in 2019, authorities have clamped down on activists like Chow.
Dozens of people have been charged under a sweeping national security law Beijing imposed in 2020, including pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai and campaigner Joshua Wong.
Stranded in Hong Kong and unable to find steady work because of her criminal record, Chow said the most she could do was to stay “at home and to cry and to wait”.
When she received an offer from a postgraduate program in Canada early this year, she asked the police to return her passport.
They asked her to write a series of letters – first detailing her travel request and then repenting for her years of activism.
“They had a template. What I had to do was just to copy what they typed in my handwriting,” she said, adding that she was asked to express “regret” for her participation in the pro-democracy movement.
In the letter, she had to say she wanted to change her life and focus on the future in Canada, she recalled.
Crucially, she was made to vow she would not get involved in activism again.
Repentance letters and televised confessions have long been used by Chinese authorities to discredit dissidents, including the late Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, who was forced to deny having seen China’s military kill democracy protesters in the deadly 1989 crackdown.
“If I keep silent, maybe one day these photos and letters would become evidence of my patriotism,” Chow said.
“And I just want to tell the world: It’s not true. I was forced to do so.”