Chow Hang-tung, December 22, 2022
In September 2021, the National Security Department of the Hong Kong Police Force accused the Hong Kong Alliance of being a “foreign proxy,” demanded organizational documents from the seven members of the Alliance’s Standing Committee, and arrested five of them after the demand was rejected. Two of the five pleaded guilty, but the other three — Chow Hang-tung (鄒幸彤), Tsui Hon-kwong (徐漢光), and Tang Ngok-kwan (鄧岳君) — denied the charges. The case went to trial this July, and continued since late October at the West Kowloon Magistrates Court. After a total of thirteen days of hearing and argument, the trial concluded on Friday, December 22, and designated National Security Law judge Law Tak Chuen (羅德泉) announced that a verdict will be handed down on March 4, 2023.
Walking into the court on December 3, Chow held up the backside of a document to supporters in the audience, a nod to the A4 movement (白紙運動) that was sweeping across China. Below is a translation of Chow Hang-tung’s testimony on December 6. Chow is a barrister herself. A Chinese transcript of her testimony can be found here.
– The Editors
In the statement I’m about to make, I only intend to clarify one fact: that the Hong Kong Alliance is neither an agent of any foreign country, nor is there any reasonable cause to label us as such.
First I’ll introduce my personal background and why I’m in a position to present the relevant evidence. I joined the Alliance in 2010 right out of university and took up a part-time position there. I left after several months, but continued doing volunteer work for them. At the end of 2014, I ran for election and was elected as a standing committee member. At the end of 2015, I was elected as a vice chair and worked in the same position until last year, when the Alliance was compelled to disband. I can be said to have spent the past decade in various posts in the Alliance, and thus possess a good understanding of what kind of organization it was and how it operated.
What kind of organization is the Hong Kong Alliance, then? We were established during the democratic movement that swept across China in 1989. From beginning to end, we were a group formed by Hongkongers of our own volition, not agents or pawns in the service of foreign countries. It is very clear from our name. Our full name is the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. Quite obviously, the bulk of the organization has always been the residents of Hong Kong. The Alliance was a child of Hong Kong, what it expressed was the voice of Hong Kong people, and its actions were the choice of Hongkongers.
As you can see from our full name, we are an alliance, a joint platform composed of various participating civil society organizations. For a long period of time, we had more than 200 constituent groups. The constitutional structure of the Alliance was similar to that of many other NGOs, and the general membership meeting (會員大會) was our highest decision-making body. Daily operations were mainly the purview of the Standing Committee, which was elected by members, one vote per organization. Any member organization could send a candidate or nominate anyone for election. Our electoral system was arguably more democratic and open than some other established systems.
If you say that a group composed of a large number of civil society organizations and operated democratically is a “foreign agent,” you are not just insulting the Alliance or the few members of its Standing Committee. You are insulting Hong Kong’s civil society as a whole and destroying its autonomy.
I have here the Alliance charter and the normative framework for the details of its operations; these are documents that can be easily obtained at the Companies Registry. I ask that the court pay particular attention to this statement: all income and property of the Alliance, no matter the source, can only be used to promote the organization’s own goals, so no matter where the income comes from, we can only serve our organization itself, as opposed to unknown outside interests.
In my many years working with the Alliance, whether as a staff member, volunteer, standing committee member, or vice-chair, I have never seen any foreign government or foreign political organization come to advise us. There have been frequent differences of opinion among our standing committee members, as well as among our members. [To resolve these differences] we would meet under our charter and hold discussions to reach a consensus or hold a vote. How could such a decision-making process represent the interests of one particular outside group, for over thirty years at that? It’s impossible unless you claim that our charter and all of our meetings and votes were just for show. We have always been our own masters, never anyone’s agent.
Blatant political persecution
Of course, the most commonly used method by various Party media has been to smear us as some so-called foreign forces or foreign agents. Long before the National Security Department (NSD) sent us their notice, outlets such as Wen Wei Po (文汇報) and Ta Kung Pao (大公報) had already come up with some fake news claiming we were foreign agents. The logic seems to be that as long as everything is blamed on foreign forces, the legitimacy of any appeal can be ignored, the crime of the June 4th massacre can be marginalized, and the voices of those advocating democracy can be demonized.
Judge: It’s best if you use neutral language in your descriptions [of the June 4th massacre at Tiananmen.]
Chow: In my testimony and in my view, this isn’t [a matter of] neutrality, in my view, it was a massacre and I stand by this understanding.
When these smears come from uncredible media, I don’t think there’s any need to respond to them, I don’t need to help promote their views. But now the problem is that even the authorities have stepped in to discredit and persecute us using the same unwarranted accusations. When the NSD notified us of this case, when they arrested us and ransacked our homes, they never said that they were just suspecting or investigating whether we were foreign agents; rather they said that we were foreign agents. I have statements made at the time by the relevant agencies officials, and I want to submit them to the court.
First item: On September 7, 2021, the Secretary for Security told the media that before we were arrested, he took the initiative to mention the Hong Kong Alliance: “We define these people as ‘foreign agents.’ The definition of ‘foreign agent’ is clearly stated in Appendix 5 of “Implementation Details” (《实施细则》) . The term refers to people who are financially supported by foreign political groups to carry out activities for the interests of foreign countries. As for whether the relevant persons have carried out these activities, I believe everyone’s eyes are sharp and they can see clearly.”
It wasn’t about suspicion, it wasn’t about an on-going investigation, it was flat-out definition [of the Alliance as a foreign agent] and on top of that saying that this was an obvious truth. Afterwards, a reporter asked if there was any substantive evidence of the Alliance being a foreign agent. Chris Tang Ping-keung (鄧炳強) repeated himself: “I believe that in the future, everyone will clearly see in court how these people received funds or benefits of some kind from foreign political groups, and thus acted in their interest.”
I must say that the Secretary’s speeches are relatively polite in comparison to that of the PRC State Council’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO). In this September 26, 2021 document, they said that the Alliance is the “vanguard” and “pawn” of foreign forces. Obviously, the authorities had been set on labeling us as early as last September, and that they were itching to announce their intentions. But now, more than a year later, when we really went to court, what happened? The government admits it has no proof at all of the Alliance being a foreign agent, and it doesn’t need to provide such proof.
So why did Secretary Tang say what he said? And what does the one-sided smearing by the government and officials back then count for? When Chris Tang spoke the words I just quoted, he knew that there was not enough evidence to support his statement, but he still made such irresponsible claims. Based on these unfounded accusations, he arrested people, ransacked their homes, censored the internet, and forcibly disbanded the Alliance. After all the irreversible damage has been done, they suddenly say, “We can’t prove our allegations, what are you going to do about it?” If this is not blatant political persecution, what is it?
Not something that can be bought for HK$20,000
A little over a year later, we now at least have some knowledge of what superficial reasoning the NSD used to label us as “foreign agents.” According to Chief Superintendent Hung’s testimony and the documents he submitted, they accused us of being an agent of a certain “Organization 4” based on only three facts. One, we received HK$20,000 [about US$2,600] from this organization; two, we were all founded on [a desire to redress] the June 4th massacre; third, we share the same goal. As a matter of fact, only one of the three points indicates a possible contact between our two organizations, but what of this criminally massive sum of money? The Alliance’s accounts have always been transparent and we can find out what it was used for easily by checking the records.
Superintendent Hung said that on December 22, 2018, the Alliance received HK$20,000 from “Organization 4.” Looking back at our records, we indeed received a cash donation of HK$20,000 on that day, from a donor calling themselves “The Chinese Democratic Front Japan Branch” (民主中国阵线日本分部). The receipt clearly stated that the money was a donation to the June 4th Museum, not some kind of funding. Of course, the court may not know the background of this donation. Starting in 2016, we have been holding a crowdfunding program for the expansion of the June 4th Museum, with the goal of raising HK$3 million to support us in buying a permanent address for the Museum. In 2019, we finally raised enough to buy the site for our latest June 4th Museum in Mong Kok; in other words, this donation was a one-time contribution given on one day during the nearly three years of our crowdfunding campaign. It helped us pay about 1.4 percent of the purchase price of the museum site, which was about HK$8 million.
This donation is of course important. All the funding for the Alliance came from public donations, and every penny is equally valuable, but at the same time there is nothing special about this donation in and of itself. We have absolutely no particular reason to single out a donor and represent his interests. If we had to represent the interests of each and every donor, then we would really be very busy (Chow laughs). I wonder how we could have represented all the interests of thousands of donors simultaneously.
Supporters who agree with our philosophy and work donate to us, but to say we serve their interests because we received money from them is to conflate two things that are completely different. Could it be that because we agree with the demands of the Tiananmen Mothers and donate money to them, the Tiananmen Mothers will be our agents? Perhaps the NSD underestimated us. Although our Alliance is not a large group, there’s no way we can be bought for a mere HK$20,000. Even putting aside the special fundraising event for the June 4th Museum, our routine expenses, labor, lamp oil and wax, venue rent, insurance, and so on, actually ran in the millions every year.
According to the accounting report for 2018/2019, including when the money was received, it was mentioned that a property on Ngai Wong Road (藝旺道) was purchased at a price of 8 million, and the property was to be handed over on July 31, 2019, which was shortly after the end of the crowdfunding campaign when we closed on the property. Our income was more than 4.7 million that year, and our expenditures were about 3.39 million. The surplus in that year was relatively large. Firstly, it was a “big year,” being the 30th anniversary of June 4th; secondly, we were saving money to buy the museum site. But even in a relatively normal year, we would expect expenditures of more than three million HKD. Our Alliance has been in operation for 32 years, with at least several million funds each year. To say that we became someone’s agent for no reason other than because we received a donation of HK$20,000 from them in our 29th year of operation is ridiculous on the face of it.
Cooperation does not mean subordination
Superintendent Hung relied on other two points, saying that we and the other organization have similar histories and goals. To respond, we need to compare the data of the two organizations, but of course I can only speak for the Hong Kong Alliance. It is very clear that the Alliance was not established just for June 4th, and we have never used any slogans such as rebuilding a democratic China and ending one-party rule. Of course, we can freely admit that, even if Superintendent Hung’s words are not very accurate, June Fourth is indeed a very important event for our organization, and building democracy is a core goal for us. But the question is how do these two things demonstrate that we serve the interests of others rather than pursuing our own goals? The June 4th massacre is an objective fact, it has affected and is still affecting tens of thousands of people, and democracy is the common pursuit of countless people in the world. Does it mean that organizations with similar backgrounds and ideals must be working on behalf of each other?
It’s true that NGOs with similar values often come together to cooperate in their activities, make joint petitions, or support each other’s actions. After all, unity is strength. But in a healthy civil society, there’s nothing more normal than this kind of free cooperation. It is preposterous to assume that cooperation entails subordination on the part of some group or the other.
The Alliance has been working very transparently with many civil society organizations locally, domestically, and abroad. Hong Kong has always been an international city, We see no valid reason to make it a prison and treat all international peers as persona non grata. How can it be that only the national leaders are allowed to engage in their diplomacy, and citizens must go back to the era when the country was closed to the outside world?
But the most ironic thing about the NSD accusation is that the Alliance has cooperated with so many organizations, but they actually picked for us to be an “agent” of is one that we have never heard of. If we want to represent an organization, we must at least have close contact with them. If not, how do we know where their interests lie? But at very least, I have been a member of the Standing Committee for so many years, yet I have never heard of a “Chinese Democratic Front” (民主中国阵线) in any of our committee meetings. We had no communication or cooperation with this organization. (Laughs) As I mentioned just now, there are many groups that often cooperated with the Alliance, but there is actually no “Chinese Democratic Front” among them.
There are two past statements here. The first is the joint statement on June 2, 2018, for the 29th anniversary of June 4th. Thirty-one groups jointly signed it, including 21 in Hong Kong, 8 overseas, and two from mainland China. There is no “Chinese Democratic Front” among them. The other statement, dated August 13, 2017, was jointly signed and issued in the week of Mr. Liu Xiaobo’s death by many international signatories because of wider international attention on Liu. Among the 45 group signatories from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Canada, there was still no group called the “Chinese Democratic Front.”
These two were relatively large-scale international joint statement campaigns held by the Alliance in recent years, but we did not seek out a certain Chinese Democratic Front for the simple reason that we really didn’t have any contact with such a group. (Chow laughs) We had absolutely no idea of the status of their organization, who was in charge, and how to contact them. If it weren’t for the NSD, we wouldn’t even know that it had a branch in Hong Kong.
A promise of solidarity
Moving on to the final issue, the best way to understand whether the Alliance really carried out its activities for the benefit of “foreign interests” is to look at statements made by the Alliance itself.
I’d like to present to the court a document, which is the publication of the candlelight vigil held on the 27th anniversary of June 4th (2016). I think what the court paid attention to was the vigil’s declaration, but before that, I should also mention that in fact, we dedicated half a page of the two-page program to publicize our crowdfunding campaign for the expansion of the June 4th Museum.
Going back to the declaration that year, it was the first one written by me after I became vice-chair of the Alliance. It systematically expounds my understanding of the Alliance’s mission and work. I’d like to read out a few paragraphs:
“Twenty-seven years. In the face of atrocities, some resisted and others fled; in the face of those who died, some mourned and some forgot; as survivors, some chose to carry forth the dying will of those who perished, while others deemed it as being of no importance to themselves. As Hongkongers, do we choose to shoulder this responsibility, or turn our backs to it? It’s a responsibility no one has imposed on us, and it is a difficult choice to make. Over the years, slogans like ‘redress June 4th,’ ‘end dictatorship,’ or ‘build democracy’ have not merely been the slogans of the Alliance, but are the aspirations of many selfless and conscientious individuals across China who practiced what they preached, and for that they have been imprisoned, exiled, tortured, torn from their families, outcast from society — yet despite all this, they have not given up the burden they voluntarily brought upon themselves.”
The second half of the declaration talks about what we have to do in Hong Kong: “It is at this very moment that we should stand with the countless dissidents throughout the country. Ending one-party dictatorship is not only for the sake of Chinese democracy, but also to protect Hong Kong’s freedom.”
“For the frontline protesters and pioneers on the road to democracy, we cannot let them fight alone. This is a choice that each of us has to make. People like Miao Deshun (苗德顺), Ding Zilin (丁子霖), Pu Zhiqiang (浦志强), or anyone here, can always choose to let go, to stop getting on the nerves of those who wield power and live a quieter life. This is a choice, regardless of who you are, and nor is there an obligation for you to be here, but you have all made the choice to come.”
“Thank you for choosing to persevere through the long night with no end in sight; thank you for choosing to care in the face of your own difficulties; thank you for choosing conscience in the face of interests and power. We cannot make promises for tomorrow, but we can promise solidarity until the day that the truth of June 4th is revealed and the butchers face trial; until the end of the one-party dictatorship and the end of indiscriminate politically motivated arrests, we will always demand the following: release democracy activists, redress the June 4th Massacre, hold those who committed the massacre accountable, end one-party dictatorship, and build a democratic China.”
This declaration centers on three key words: “to choose” (選擇), “to shoulder” (承擔), and “to walk together” (同行). As an organization that pursues democracy, respecting everyone’s free will and independent choice is the foundation of our cause. We will be happy and grateful to those who choose to support us and walk with us, because we know that it is not done out of obligation and that such a choice does not come easily. And with regard to those who choose to leave or even oppose the Alliance, we also respect the choices they made, and unlike the regime, we do not regard all opposing voices as dupes or agents acting on the will of others.
And what exactly is it that we choose to shoulder? The manifesto clearly stated: “For the sake of Chinese democracy, but also to protect Hong Kong’s freedom.” Even if it must be described in terms of interests, Chinese democracy and Hong Kong’s freedom are clearly the interests of the people on this land and in this country, how can they be said to be the interests of foreign countries? To describe our democracy and freedom as the interests of foreign countries, I don’t know whether to say that this foreign country is too kind, or that the people of this country are too self-abasing.
And we all made a commitment to walk together. As ordinary individuals without power and influence, we cannot promise immediate change, but we can promise to always walk with all those who also choose to bear a burden for democracy, whether they be in Hong Kong, China, or overseas; or whether they are among the living or those who have passed on. This is a promise we have kept for 33 years and will always keep, whether the organization lives or dies.
Walking together is predicated on a relationship of equality and mutual respect. At the very least, it is not a matter of which supporter contributes more money; your voice will not be louder than others because you have donated more and it will not be silenced just because you did not make a monetary contribution. On the contrary, in a group like ours that was guided by ideals, those who only donate money have the least opportunity to speak compared with those who devote their time and energy to the organization and thus can affect the development and direction of the organization. And all the choices we made in this case are nothing more than fulfilling the promise of solidarity.
The NSD sent its notice to the Alliance, but the fear and intimidation it brought did not only impact our organization. First, as I mentioned earlier, the Hong Kong Alliance was a federation, one that had been openly and legally active in Hong Kong for more than 30 years and connected to tens of thousands of people. Because the NSD notice is so unbelievably vague and extensive in the scope of the data it demands, it infringes upon the privacy of tens of thousands; in effect, it impacts and poses a threat to all of civil society.
Secondly, the government’s logic is clearly twisted. Whether or not you are the agent of a foreign country has nothing to do with whether you actually have any connection with a foreign country; rather, if the regime doesn’t like what you say, you must be a “foreign force.” As long as the regime refuses to admit that the Hong Kong people have the right to their own independent thought and expression, the scope of “foreign agents” will only broaden, and more and more people will face such unreasonable demands under the national security regime.
We may well be bringing a knife to a gunfight with our resistance, but if it can compel those in power to reign in their actions a little rather than so easily abuse labels like “foreign agent,” we will have stayed true to our commitment. At the very least, we will leave a record of this era.
Facing such abuse of power, we must stand up to stop it and walk together to help protect everyone. Our response is not merely relevant for our own organization. It concerns the fate of civil society as a whole, and what we, as ordinary residents of this city, can do to bring an end to it. By doing what we do, we walk together with everyone who might suffer persecution at the hands of the regime.
We have a duty to leave a record of this tyrannical era, even at the cost of our personal liberty.
A jailed Hong Kong lawyer defies Beijing’s campaign to subjugate the city, a Reuters Special Report, November 10, 2022.
Chow Hang-tung’s Testimony During Preliminary Court Inquiry in the Hong Kong Alliance ‘Incitement to Subversion’ Case, Chow Hang-tung, September 7, 2022.
The Life and Death of the ‘Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China’ – Part One, by Olivia Cheng, Siaw Hew Wah, translated by China Change, July 29, 2022.