Hong Kong activist says desire for freedom led her to flee to Canada

By Jessie Pang and Joyce Zhou

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow, who fled to Canada while free on bail, says she won’t return home amid a crackdown that curbed her freedoms, defying a warning from Hong Kong’s leader that she would be pursued for life.

Chow said that she faced intense scrutiny from authorities for several years and that with her passport confiscated, she constantly lived in fear and had to remain silent.

“I feel like I was forced to stay in such kind of severe environment that I couldn’t escape,” said Chow, who spoke from Toronto, where she has been for three months.

“In consideration of the political situation in Hong Kong and my personal health, my mental health, my physical health, and the high political risk of not being allowed to leave Hong Kong again, I’ve decided not to go back.”

Chow was released from prison in June 2021 after being jailed for unauthorised assembly.

But a separate allegation of collusion with foreign forces under a China-imposed national security law meant her passport was confiscated, her movements closely monitored, and she had difficulties finding a full-time job, opening a bank account or renting an apartment.

The security law has drawn criticism from Western governments as a tool of repression, but China says it has restored stability after mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.

Chow said the fear of being jailed again meant she suffered from panic attacks, and she was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder at a time when authorities continued to make more arrests – with many fellow democrats facing stiff jail terms or forced into exile.

Hong Kong authorities agreed to allow her to travel to Toronto for a master’s degree programme this year, but only if she agreed to a one-day trip to the Chinese city of Shenzhen, where Chow said she was chaperoned by five police officers and photographed at a “patriotic” exhibition showcasing China’s achievements, and the headquarters of technology firm Tencent.

She said she was required to write and sign several letters her police handlers had drafted, including one of repentance and one of thanks to authorities.

A cheaper flight Chow intended to book that transited through Japan – where she has a sizable following – was deemed unacceptable by police, and she had to buy a direct flight to Toronto.

“The national security police are not doing their job according to the legal system in Hong Kong,” she told Reuters.

Hong Kong leader John Lee on Tuesday described Chow as a “liar” and “devoid of integrity”.

“The police will do their utmost to pursue her, to arrest her. Fugitives will be pursued for life,” Lee told reporters.

This year, Hong Kong police issued arrest warrants and bounties of HK$1 million ($127,656) for eight overseas activists, including Nathan Law and Anna Kwok, saying their assets would be frozen where possible.

A request for comment from Hong Kong’s police and security bureau wasn’t immediately answered.

“I hope that my story could remind everyone in the world that … there are still many, many, many people in Hong Kong being sent to prison, being suppressed, not able to even to speak a word,” said Chow, who was dressed in a yellow hoodie and turned 27 on Sunday.

“To be freed physically and mentally,” is my birthday wish, she added.

(Writing by James Pomfret; Editing by Gerry Doyle)