They became the voice of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.
Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam have embodied the youthful spirit of a city-wide campaign to combat Beijing’s crackdown on “freedom of expression.”
Leading from the front, they have also been the loudest critics of China’s draconian move to dismantle the “One Country Two Systems” policy agreed by the United Kingdom before Hong Kong’s handover in 1997.
Now, they face months in prison for their involvement in last year’s mass protests, known as the summer of discontent.
Former legislator Joshua Wong was found guilty in a Hong Kong court and jailed for nearly 14 months on two charges related to unlawful assembly. Long-time colleagues Agnes Chow, who is 23, and Ivan Lam, 26, also received prison sentences of 10 and seven months respectively.
They all pleaded guilty to charges linked to a police headquarters siege at the height of the demonstrations in June 2019.
“The defendants called on protesters to besiege the headquarters and chanted slogans that undermine the police force. Immediate imprisonment is the only appropriate option,” Magistrate Wong Sze-lai said as reported by the AFP news agency.
Human Rights groups have been quick to condemn the court ruling.
“By targeting well-known activists from Hong Kong’s largely leaderless protest movement, authorities are sending a warning to anyone who dares openly criticize the government that they could be next,” Yamini Mishra, the Asia-Pacific regional director of Amnesty International, said in a statement.
“These three activists have been jailed in violation of their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Their convictions should be overturned without delay and they must be released immediately and unconditionally,” she added.
By imposing on Hong Kong an oppressive national security law in June, critics have argued that China’s ruling Communist Party has strangled basic human rights in the city.
Breaking the catch-all legislation carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
“Clearly, #Beijing shows a total disregard for the will of #Hongkongers, tramples upon the city’s last pillar of vanishing autonomy and attempts to keep #HK’s legislature under its firm grip,” Wong tweeted at the time.
Along with Chow and Lam, the 24-year-old was arrested and charged before the national security law was brought in. They were all leading lights of the now-disbanded political group Demosisto.
“All [this] pain and suffering [will] only strengthen our courage and conviction for democracy and justice. Cages cannot lock up souls,” Wong wrote on Twitter ahead of his court appearance.
He also led the “Umbrella Movement” in 2014 when he was just a teenager. It later became the forerunner of the pro-democracy protest campaign that attracted millions of Hong Kong citizens in 2019.
“I know the coming days will be tougher. We will hang in there,” he said after the sentence was readout.
“It’s not the end of the fight. Ahead of us is another challenging battleground. We’re now joining the battle in prison along with many brave protesters, less visible yet essential in the fight for democracy and freedom for Hong Kong,” Wong added later through his lawyer.
Chow was visibly shaken by the 10-month sentence and broke down in tears. Before the court appearance, she had been the angelic face of the movement. Her supporters had even called her “the real Mulan,” a reference to the legendary Chinese heroine who fought to save her family and country.
Others often referred to Chow as the “goddess of democracy.”
“I don’t think I deserve the title. But it’s not a bad thing if it helps draw attention to the Hong Kong situation,” she told the BBC Chinese news network.
“I hope my fame encourages people to hold on to their faith,” she added.
Already there has been international condemnation about the prison sentences amid calls to free the “Hong Kong Three.”
“I urge the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities to bring an end to their campaign to stifle opposition,” Dominic Raab, the UK Foreign Minister, said.
“Prosecution decisions must be fair and impartial. Rights and freedoms in Hong Kong must be upheld,” he added.
Writing in the New York Times, two leading Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in exile called on United States President-elect Joe Biden to increase political pressure on China.
“If the world does not act resolutely to build a stronger alliance against the Chinese Communist Party’s increasing aggression, more activists will be sacrificed, and more essential democratic values, too,” Nathan Law and Alex Chow warned.