KEY POINTS

  • Hong Kong activist Agnes Chow has struck a cord with people in Japan
  • Following her fourth arrest, she is "set to be prosecuted" under controversial new laws
  • China's handling of the case could be complicated by her sudden popularity in Japan

The emergence of Agnes Chow on the international stage did not begin with her recent fourth arrest in Hong Kong, but in Japan, she has taken center stage and has been dubbed the "Goddess of Democracy."

The 23-year-old Chow was arrested on Aug. 10 for breaching the New National Security laws recently imposed on Hong Kong. She was released shortly after but according to an unnamed source, is "set to be prosecuted."

Chow spoke to reporters after her release and said that this was the fourth time she had been arrested for participating in social activities, calling her latest arrest "the scariest" yet.

"The reason for arrest I was told was that I colluded with foreign forces by using SNS (Social Network Service), since July," she told Japan Times. "I don’t understand why I was arrested…the national security law was certainly used for political suppression."

So who is Agnes Chow? She was raised in Hong Kong and began to show an interest in politics and social activism as a teenager. She attended Hong Kong Baptist University, studying government and international relations from 2014 to 2018. She decided to defer her final year to run for a seat in the city’s 70-member legislative council (LegCo). In the process, she was required to renounce her British nationality.

Chow participated in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution before co-founding Demosistō, a pro-democracy political organization, with another student activist, Joshua Wong. She took part in the 2019 pro-democracy protests over an unpopular extradition bill that often turned violent and was used by China as a justification of the New National Security Laws.

Chow is fluent in Cantonese, English, and Japanese and claims that she taught herself Japanese from watching television shows. Her fluency in Japanese has allowed her to communicate to the Japanese media and endear herself to the normally stoic population. She launched a YouTube channel in February and at the time of her arrest had over 200,000 subscribers, some of whom have nicknamed her the "Goddess of Democracy."

Hongkongers sympathetic to Chow are understandably reluctant to show any support on social media. In Japan, where the new security laws do not apply, there has been an outpouring of support from some of her 500,000 Twitter followers.

One unnamed diplomatic source in Beijing told the Japan Times, "Agnes Chow is well-known in Japan. If China wants to maintain amicable relations with Japan in the midst of escalating tensions with the United States, it should not have arrested her."

That same source added that many Japanese have finally "recognized China as a country that ignores human rights…and will never forgive the Chinese Communist Party."

Last year, Chow made Forbes Japan’s list of the 50 most influential social media accounts in the country. The list normally includes mostly Japanese celebrities and public figures.

Even the Japanese business community is observing China, according to Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at International Christian University in Tokyo. "Japanese businesses will watch the situation carefully to test whether the arrest of Chow and others is eroding the business environment in Hong Kong and mainland China."

One unusual twist in Agnes Chow’s story is that aside from being called the "Goddess of Democracy" by the Japanese, some are also calling her "Mulan," a reference to a Disney movie by the same title. The central character Mulan is a symbol of female heroism in China, a role that Chow, perhaps reluctantly, has chosen to play.

Agnes Chow (left) and Joshua Wong (right) are also being prosecuted for taking part in last year's huge pro-democracy protests Agnes Chow (left) and Joshua Wong (right) are also being prosecuted for taking part in last year's huge pro-democracy protests Photo: AFP / Lillian SUWANRUMPHA