Tonyee Chow: ‘The biggest obstacle to democracy in China is the grotesque logic of merging the state and the party as one’
Tonyee Chow Hang-tung, former vice-chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (HKASPDMC), and Lee Cheuk-yan, former chair, and vice-chair Albert Ho Chun-yan, were charged with “inciting subversion of state power” under the Hong Kong national security law (NSL) in September 2021.
The HKASPDMC was a pro-democracy group that started in HK in 1989 when the student protests were happening in Beijing. After the student massacre on Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, the group focused on restoring the democratic movement and ensuring that the regime was held accountable for the student deaths. They held an annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park until they were disbanded in 2021.
At Chow’s request, the first day of public committee proceedings was held on Sept. 2 at the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts. Chow pleaded not guilty and said that she was not breaking the law by pursuing democracy.
Chow mentioned that she and her mother participated in the candlelight vigil for the first time during her primary school days. While standing there she was able to “see the best side of Hong Kong people.” A video of the gathering in 2019 was played in court. After watching the clip, she wiped away tears and said, “We never thought about it back then that this could be the last vigil to be organized by the HKASPDMC in Victoria Park.”
The prosecution tried to interrupt the video, saying that it contained inappropriate wording that “seemed to constitute propaganda purposes,” and claiming that it was not relevant to the case. Acting Chief Magistrate Veronica Heung Shuk-han rebuked the lawyer and said that the clips were submitted as evidence by the prosecution in the first place. She asked, “Then why do you think it is not suitable for playing here?” The defence was allowed to continue playing the clips.
The prosecution said it has 39 witnesses for their side who will submit their testimony in writing and after that, the prosecution will have concluded its presentation.
When Judge Heung asked Chow, the defendant, about her intentions, Chow responded, “It is impossible to plead guilty. Pursuit of democracy is always innocent, and there is no chance for me to plead guilty.”
She was represented by barristers Erik Shum Sze-man and Yvonne Leung Lai-kwok. The defence said that after completing its presentation, it may submit a statement requesting the court to not refer the case to the High Court because the prosecution’s evidence was not sufficient to make a prima facie case, and said they will submit a full statement on Sept. 8.
In her testimony, Chow pointed out that her first contact with the HKASPDMC was when she was in grade school and her mother brought her to a June 4th rally. She described herself as “a generation who grew up under the influence of the HKSPDMC.” She said her experience “is also a reflection of how the HKASPDMC affects the thoughts of the people in this city.”
Chow recalled that her participation in those days was rather insignificant. “I held just one of the tens of thousands of candles, and at that time did not necessarily know the “five guiding principles” of the HKASPDMC, but I knew that many “brothers and sisters” who came out to fight for the good of the state, were massacred by the regime and were discredited afterward.” She said she was really touched by the atmosphere at that moment. “It was the first time that a youngster felt the sadness and anger shared by so many people. “I really wanted to understand how that could unite so many people as one,” she added.
She said, “Actually when I came to Victoria Park, I felt that I saw the most beautiful side of Hong Kong people.” She said the crowd wasn’t bothered that they were packed so tightly during the event. Some went there well in advance to help set up the venue. “The candlelight vigil itself was a completely selfless occasion, and the people were there primarily for the sake of love: love for the country and the truth.”
Chow also pointed out, “The Tiananmen Mothers who insisted on finding the truth, or every Hongkonger who went to Victoria Park to make their voice heard, showed their empathy with other people’s sufferings…. all demonstrated to me what it means when a person is called great and with high esteem.”
Pamphlets and Video Clips of June 4 Rallies
The prosecution said that the evidence, in this case, included video clips of the HKASPDMC from 1989, but fell short of mentioning the specifics. On this first day of the committee procedures, they revealed for the first time that there were clips of at least 11 opening discourses or live clips of the June 4 candlelight vigils in Victoria Park involving the HKASPDMC, as well as relevant pamphlets (that were handed out) on site.
On the other hand, the defence stated that Chow would cite relevant evidence in her testimony to prove that “none of the seven sections during any of the rallies had any hint of encouraging people to use violence.” During her testimony in the morning, Chow cited the 1997 to 1998 rallies, as well as the pre-opening clips of the 2001 and 2019 rallies, and the 2014 flower presentation ceremony.
When playing a video of the 2019 rally, Li Zhi’s “The Square” is heard as the background music. The lyrics repeatedly say, “now this square is my grave.” When the video was finished, Chow sighed, remained silent for a while, and then said, “I couldn’t have guessed that back then, this would be the last meeting in Victoria Park of the HKASPDMC….the last meeting,” and then wiped away tears. Seeing this, Magistrate Heung asked Chow if she needed to take a break.
When the video of the 2014 rally flower laying ceremony was played, the narrator repeatedly stated the names and causes of death of the “June 4 victims.” At that moment, Ivan Cheung Cheuk-kan, a prosecution representative and the acting assistant criminal prosecution officer, suddenly stood up and interrupted, and said that he could not see the relationship between the clips played in court and the prosecution. “I don’t feel it appropriate to hear continuously such things in court….” Cheung said.
The judge said, “I want to clarify with you whether this video forms part of the prosecution’s evidence or not?” Cheung agreed that it was. The judge asked, “Since it is the prosecution’s evidence, why do you think it is not suitable for replaying in court?” The judge allowed the defence to continue playing the prosecution’s evidence as part of their own testimony.
When the hearing resumed, Chow talked about the five guiding principles of the HKASPDMC. She alleged that the prosecution often accused them of talking about a certain guiding principle on certain occasions. She argued, “Whether it has been mentioned or not, all the five [principles] are there behind all actions. That is the reason the organization exists.” “They all work in unison, and can never be taken out of context, or [used] in abstract terms.”
As regards “building a democratic China” and “ending the one-party dictatorship,” she explained that the former was the demand of the 1989 democracy movement, and the HKASPDMC has the responsibility of inheriting it. She said that the biggest hurdle in China for achieving democracy is the bizarre and grotesque logic of merging the state and the party as one. “Anyone who truly pursues democracy can’t possibly tolerate the existence of a one-party dictatorship,” she said.
Chow pointed out that although the end of dictatorship will not immediately lead to democracy, “if the dictatorship is not ended, there will certainly be no democracy.” Therefore, the party’s absolute power must be limited, and the party should be held accountable for its crimes. The “June 4 Massacre” shows exactly the real dangers of a one-party dictatorship: “Any political party that is not under the supervision of the people indeed has a monopoly on powers that do not belong to it. It will be free to massacre innocent people, arrest and control them indiscriminately, and obliterate the truth afterwards.” Such a tragedy is certain to just keep repeating itself, she said.
As for “rehabilitating the 1989 pro-democracy movement” and “investigating responsibility for the massacre,” Chow explained that they are part of the groups’ stated guiding principles, saying that if the one-party dictatorship is not ended and a democratic China is built, how can there be rehabilitation and accountability in a real sense? Are you going to ask a political party that holds absolute power to check itself? It’s just a joke.” She cited, for example, the tragedies resulting from one-party dictatorships in China’s history, such as the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, and the anti-rightist movement. Till now, all those have not been properly and publicly accounted for. “All those killed seem to have been forgotten forever, lessons from historical tragedies are never taken up properly,” she said.
As for the “release of pro-democracy activists,” she pointed out that “any unreasonable detention of political prisoners is always considered too much for even a single day.” As the first and foremost of the five guiding principles [release of the jailed dissidents], this is also the number one commitment of the HKASPDMC. “If the regime is sincere in carrying out democratic reforms, this is the most imminent and easiest to do as a sign of sincerity.”
Fundamental Principles of Peace and Non-violence
Chow reiterated that the group’s five guiding principles are interlinked and affect each other. If you say that giving up the end of the one-party dictatorship can still vindicate the June 4th Movement, it is just cheating, and far from sincere. It can simply be interpreted as whitewashing for those in power.
She also said that peace and non-violence are the fundamental principles of the HKASPDMC, even though a lot of people questioned that it was nothing more than a “mere slogan,” yet this is what they insist upon until today. “If there is no more room for expressing these demands, it is even less likely these demands could be accomplished,” she said.
She described the way “totalitarian” regimes control people by employing humiliation and fear to turn everyone into their own jailer. People will live in a world where constant self-censorship, and speaking about things they do not really believe become commonplace. Everybody is trapped in a world full of falsehood, with no real values of their own, independent choice and thinking are hard to come by.
“To end the one-party dictatorship, we must start with ourselves. That includes working hard to break the cage put upon us via fears that limit our thoughts, we must stand upright, and protect truths and values. That’s what the HKASPDMC has always strived for, and that’s also what I’m going to do in this courtroom,” she said.
At the end of the hearing, the defence submitted its written statement to the court. It argued that the prosecution had not done enough to fully support the establishment of the prima facie case, and as a result, the case should not be handed over to the High Court. The case was adjourned to Sept. 8 when the court will hear the verbal presentations. The 9, 13, and 14 are reserved for the next committee proceedings.
The HKASPDMC members, Lee Cheuk-yan (64), Albert Ho Chun-yan (69), and Tonyee Chow Hang-tung (37), were charged with one count of “inciting subversion of state power.” The four have been in custody since their first court appearance in September 2021. Ho Chun-yan’s application to the High Court for bail on Aug. 22 was approved.