B.C. student studies history but once made it, in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy activist Ernie Shue-fung Chow studies history at the University of B.C. but it wasn’t long ago that he was making it

Ernie Shue-fung Chow sits on a park bench at the University of B.C., just a stone’s throw from the Goddess of Democracy and makes his admission.

“I guess I’m not going back, so I can admit that I was there, yup.”

There being inside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council Complex on July 1, 2019, when hundreds of young pro-democracy activists, including Chow, broke through glass and metal and ransacked the interior of the chambers in a display of civil disobedience seen around the world.

The actions were, unsurprisingly, denounced by the appointed pro-Beijing authorities and police.

“If my memory serves me correctly we had been gathering around the legislative council since noon and then trying to break in for the afternoon …Almost as the night falls, we broke in and the rest is history,” said Chow, who now finds himself an observer and interpreter of history as a masters student in the university’s history department.

“I know I was a participant that day; I was not a history observer, not an outsider, so I was in the event and did not get a clear picture, as say an outside observer does,” said Chow, who qualifies the storming of the legislature.

“Did we break in and burn it all down and vandalize it? No. This is an interesting case. We vandalized the portraits of the past chairmen of the council, but we did it selectively to pro-Beijing ones,” said Chow.

“We are people, we are human. We broke in and we got thirsty and obviously alongside the political portraits and whatever, they still had drinks there. So some of us grabbed drinks but we left money there,” said Chow with a slight grin.

The stage had been set, said Chow, by Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary for Administration Carrie Lam’s intention to impose a new extradition law on Hong Kong, permitting its citizens to face Beijing’s justice system and prisons.

Chow, a former Chinese University Students’ Union chairman, was never arrested but authorities indicated they were on his tail. In 2021 matters came to a head, leading to him fleeing Hong Kong for good, coming to Canada with his wife, a Canadian citizen, whom he recently married.

“I was contacted by a middleman from the CCP (Chinese Communist Party),” Chow claimed. “They were trying to lure me to [sell out] my friend. That is basically a personal threat, you know: ‘We have some news that you are behind some projects and we are generous; if you are not guilty and you know who the real culprit is, then you’ll be fine,’” said Chow of the interaction with the so-called middleman.

“Then I figured out it was time to leave,” he said.

There are theories as to how the students were able to storm the legislature. One, said Chow, is that it was a trap to eventually arrest leaders but he chalks it up to “communication chaos.”

At a Canadian university now, Chow remains committed to the cause, preparing a master’s thesis on the diverging meaning of the Tiananmen Square Massacre between generations.

Chow says between 1984, when the British agreed to hand over Hong Kong under a two-system state, and July 1, 1997, when the handoff occurred, there was “huge anxiety over the eventual communist rule.”

And, “when news of the massacre came out, Hong Kong was in great shock and ever since there have been candlelight vigils.”

On Sunday, Chow will speak at a Langara College symposium titled “1989 to 2019: Hong Kong’s Resistance, Trauma and Memory,” hosted by the Vancouver Society in Support for Democratic Movement, which will soon mark the 35th anniversary of the massacre on June 4.

But younger Hong Kongers now, have a “lack of sentimental connection” to the massacre and don’t perceive a responsibility to help mainland China democratize, argues Chow.

“Younger Hong Kongers see it as it’s the history of China, not Hong Kong,” explained Chow.

Nevertheless, the fight for democracy in the once-independent city state comes full circle between generations and the storming of the legislature on July 1, the same date of the handover, was no coincidence.

Asked to explain what precipitated the pro-democracy movement that saw millions of people march on the street in 2019, Chow explains “in short” that the movement was largely brought on by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rise to power.

“Not just in Hong Kong, but he strengthened his grip on the entire China: mainland China as well as Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong. And the CCP has grown increasingly hawkish on Taiwan. So Hong Kong is just one piece in this picture,” said Chow.

Now a student of democracy, Chow was asked by a reporter how he squares civil disobedience with the rule of law, especially in a time of growing public protests and social movements.

Chow said some may now compare the storming of the legislature with that of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 but he sees the two situations much differently.

“I think back then we did strongly believe what we were doing was not a riot in the sense that obviously in the 2020s people will compare it to the U.S. Capitol. But back then we compared it to the Sunflower Student Movement in 2014 and they occupied the legislature as well,” he told Glacier Media.

“Are we just wreaking havoc everywhere or focused on the regime? Are we causing unnecessary harm and collective damage to people? … I would say 90 per cent of our effort focused on the regime and their supporters and try to focus on the pro-Beijing politicians,” said Chow.

Here in Canada, Chow sees democracy playing out differently.

While there seems to be a protest daily on one matter or another, Chow says, “You don’t have terribly inhumane things to fight against, so there’s room to debate about things that are less serious or less detrimental to some extent.”

But those “relatively petty arguments” is “also the good part of democracy,” he says.

Chow is also bearing witness to a country that’s embroiled in a political debate he’s completely familiar with: foreign interference and influence campaigns by proxies and ideological supporters of the People’s Republic of China and the CCP.

“This has always been around but is under more focus now,” said Chow.

“In the 2010s, when Hong Kong’s relationship got increasingly bad with China, we were screaming to the West to recognize how many Chinese spies, infiltration and underground institutions are running everywhere and it comes almost as a relief to us, after 2019, that the West recognizes this kind of infiltration and influence everywhere,” said Chow.

But, “at the same time it would not be quite appropriate to go to the old path of McCarthyism.”

To that end, Chow does not see himself being a target of Chinese spies although he concedes they are here and active in Canada.

“Yes, I believe there are spies here in Canada. But at the same time I do not deem myself as so important to have spies surrounding me and reporting on me. I’m a relatively minor figure.”

He went on to add: “One friend I have who lives in the U.S., a lobbyist, had their parents in Hong Kong threatened. So it is a concern,” he said.

Embracing his past activism, Chow calls on Hong Kong immigrants to embrace Canadian democratic values.

“We should pay more effort to embrace Canadian and liberal values; I’m not saying we should shape ourselves entirely according to a Western liberalist imagination, but we need to show the world we are a fellow believer of human values and fellow defender of human rights and freedoms. I think that’s an important message many Hong Kongers tried to do in 2019,” said Chow.

Taking a quote from former war-era British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Chow acknowledges democracy is not perfect.

“The good old saying, it’s not the best system, it’s just the best of the worst systems.”

And it will be democratic values that should win the day in China, Chow believes and hopes.

But until then and in the near term, when asked if Hong Kong as he knew it growing up has been lost, Chow’s confidence fades.

“I think it wouldn’t be doing my brothers and comrades justice to say Hong Kong is just another Chinese city but no one can deny the future of Hong Kong is grim now, for the Hong Kong people.”

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