By Claire Provost
Agnes Chow was still a teenager in September 2014, when she joined thousands of other young people on the streets of Hong Kong, in a historic pro-democracy protest lasting 79 days that became known as the “umbrella movement.”
Last week Chow travelled to Strasbourg, France, to attend the Council of Europe’s 2017 World Forum for Democracy (WFD). This year’s event focused on populism and the crises of traditional political party and media institutions.
“It’s never easy,” she said, to take on “an authoritarian regime, and to fight for things we believe in.” Chow spoke to WFD youth delegates Karla Ng and Skye Riggs on the sidelines of the conference.
Protest is important “even though it might fail, even though it might not be a success every time,” she said. “It’s not easy to fight for democracy, but the most important thing is we should not give up.”
Now 21, Chow is a student at Hong Kong Baptist University – and one of the founding members of Demosistō, a new political party formed last year by some of the organisers of the 2014 umbrella movement protests.
Those demonstrations saw tens of thousands take to the streets, to demand ‘universal suffrage’ and the right to directly elect Hong Kong’s chief executive, its top political leader, currently chosen by an elite selection committee.
Police responded with tear gas and pepper spray, and eventually evicted occupiers from city spaces. Since then, activists have been arrested, prosecuted, and jailed. Others are awaiting trials.
Amnesty International warns the state “is toughening its stance” against pro-democracy organisers, with freedom of expression and assembly under attack
Joshua Wong, the skinny bespectacled student who became an icon of the movement, was imprisoned with two other activists in August. They were recently released on bail while courts consider their appeals.
The umbrella movement captured attention internationally, with media coverage and solidarity rallies around the world. Wong is the subject of a recent Netflix documentary, Joshua: Teenager Vs Superpower, in which Chow also appears.
A generation’s “political awakening”
2017 marks the 20th anniversary of the handover of the former British colony Hong Kong to Beijing. The city has its own separate political and legal systems but it is not independent and Beijing’s influence over it has provoked numerous protests.
The umbrella movement was called a defining “political awakening” for an entire generation – including young women who appeared on front lines and organised “everything from food and water distribution to communications,” according to one report.
The movement’s name came from the umbrellas protesters used as shields against tear gas and pepper spray. Yellow ribbons – long an emblem of women’s suffrage movements – also became symbols of the protests.
Pop singer Denise Ho was an outspoken supporter of the movement. A 14-year old girl, arrested for drawing a chalk flower on a wall, was another icon.
But there were also reports of discrimination and abuse against women protesters. Last year, activist Yau Wai-ching said she had been trailed by a local tabloid reporter looking to uncover details about her sex life.
In 2014, Human Rights Watch researcher Maya Wong said that many young women and girls faced “hostility” over their participation in the protests. She blamed a “gender expectation that for women their role belongs at home. If they stand up in public, they should stand back.”
At the WFD, Chow told youth delegates Ng (also from Hong Kong) and Riggs (from Australia) that she hopes “more and more females can have the bravery to participate in politics in the future.”
This summer, following arrests at a sit-in protest, she and other activists filed a formal complaint with the city over male officers patrolling female holding cells, and a lack of privacy using the toilet while detained.
From protest to political party
“In Hong Kong it is more and more common for women to be involved in politics,” said Chow, though this doesn’t necessarily mean she agrees with their policies.
In March, Hong Kong appointed its first female chief executive, Carrie Lam, described by the Guardian as “China’s preferred candidate… in a contest that pitted popular appeal against lobbying by Beijing.”
Chow says Demosistō’s priorities are “advocating universal values such as democracy, freedom, human rights and equality,” along with “self-determination for Hong Kong,” with residents given “the right to decide their own future.”
She says the party must be clear and uncompromising on core values, whilst “careful not to start any kind of politics of hatred or fear or discrimination” in their opposition to the Chinese government.
We are different from other traditional or conservative political parties in Hong Kong, because we actually came from social movements and direct participation of people,” said Chow, who says Demosistō members still believe in direct democracy.
“People should have some direct channels to participate in politics, not only for voting for someone… to be in some role, but also to directly be involved, and respected and heard by the government.”
As student activists, Chow said they focused primarily on “big issues” like ‘universal suffrage’. As a party, they’re also going to “different communities, different districts… to understand what social issues are more relevant for people’s lives,” such as housing policy, rent, and the distribution of resources including land.
Public education is also needed “to help people understand the meaning of democracy… [and] how to get involved,” she said. “We are partly advocating social movements, we’re partly advocating civil disobedience… and we also advocate direct action.”
The Council of Europe, founded in 1949, has a stated mission to uphold human rights, democracy and rule of law in its now-47 member states. It has a committee of ministers, parliamentary assembly, and court of human rights.
The WFD is held each November, bringing civil society, political, and academic representatives together to discuss challenges facing contemporary democracies. Youth political participation has been a main theme over the years.
Ahead of the 2017 forum, dozens of youth delegates also gathered at the European Youth Centre in Strasbourg for workshops and a special youth programme.
During the WFD, a group of youth delegates worked with 50.50, the gender and sexuality section of openDemocracy, to explore issues related to populism and women’s rights.
Forum sessions focused on topics from fake news and storytelling to women’s political empowerment and the increasingly ‘female face of the far right.’