“Because I was arrested at my home twice, I am very scared of doorbells and knocks on the door,” she said, as supporters flooded the comments section. “I am traumatized.”
A week after that broadcast last month, Chow was remanded in custody after pleading guilty to charges related to a protest last year, along with fellow activists Joshua Wong, 24, and Ivan Lam, 26. They face up to five years in prison when they are sentenced on Wednesday — one day before Chow’s 24th birthday.
Chow’s plight has hit a particular nerve in Japan, where she amassed a huge following in recent years as a torchbearer for democratic values. Her affinity for the country — she taught herself Japanese as a teenager and is known to obsess over anime and Japanese pop culture — helped to internationalize her city’s struggle as Beijing expunges its democratic ambitions.
“I think the reaction in Japan to Hong Kong would have been significantly different without her,” said Tsuyoshi Nojima, a Japanese journalist and author.
Chow’s activism raised awareness of Hong Kong’s predicament among those who otherwise would not have paid attention, he said. “Her Japanese attracts people who have affinity toward subculture. In that language, she speaks about politics in Hong Kong, which sits well and stays with the listeners here.”
A poll by Japan’s Mainichi Shimbun newspaper in August found that 68 percent of respondents wanted Tokyo to intensify criticism of China over its erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong.
Building a profile
Wong, Lam and Chow graced magazine covers as teenage faces of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, a 79-day street occupation that called on China to allow Hong Kong residents to vote freely for the city’s leaders.
Though the movement failed to achieve its goals, the activists helped to solidify a Hong Kong identity, politically and culturally distinct from the Chinese mainland.
In 2014, Wong — who is now lauded in the West — was not as fluent in English, so Chow became the foreign media’s de facto liaison, said Jeffrey Ngo, who along with the pair was a founding member of Demosisto, their now-disbanded political party.
When Demosisto formed in 2016, the young activists began to think about how they could take their democratic cause global. Chow, with her interests and language skills, naturally gravitated toward Japan.
“It established our identity as an activist group with genuine international appeal,” Ngo said, setting Demosisto apart from veteran Hong Kong activists who primarily took their appeals to Washington and London. “We were able to make the case that when we talk about getting support of the international community, it isn’t just the U.S. and the U.K.”
Japanese observers say that Chow’s profile grew through regular talks and invitations to Japanese universities and press clubs and via her social media presence, which is geared toward her fans in the country.
In a 2017 speech at the University of Tokyo, she admitted she was “not at all interested in politics” and was an “ordinary otaku” who did not like to study — a Japanese term for someone obsessed with a particular aspect of pop culture.
A video clip of that speech aired in a news feature last summer on TBS, a Japanese broadcaster, titled “The Real Face of Hong Kong ‘Goddess of Democracy’ Agnes Chow.” Her supporters in Japan include the artist Yoshitomo Nara, who has exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
Chow was nominated by a Japanese magazine as one of the 50 most influential people in the country, and was named by the British Broadcasting Corp. as one of the 100 most influential women of 2020.
When China cracked down on Hong Kong following massive anti-government protests last year, messages of support for the demonstrators and criticism of Beijing flowed in from around the world.
Wong and Chow have accounts on Patreon, where fans can pay for exclusive content to help fund their activism. Users watching Chow’s YouTube broadcast this month gave money in real time through the platform’s donation function.
Commenters on the TBS news feature, which was posted on YouTube, urged Japan’s government to take a firmer line against China for its actions in Hong Kong, while others said they were crying and praying for Chow.
“I want the Japanese government to protest against [Beijing] instead of keeping quiet,” wrote one. “This is an issue of human rights.”
Some Japanese politicians, including Renho Saito, head of the center-left Constitutional Democratic Party, also demanded a stronger stance from Tokyo after Chow, Wong and Lam were remanded in custody on Monday.
Tokyo treads softly
Yet Chow’s star power has done little to coax Japan’s government into firmer action, given China’s formidable economic clout in the region.
Hong Kong featured only briefly in talks when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Tokyo last week; Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, Katsunobu Kato, noted simply that he had raised concerns in the discussions, which focused on the pandemic and conflicting territorial claims.
Beijing’s national security law has “brought to reality that there is not much [Japan] can do,” said Stephen Nagy, a senior associate professor at the International Christian University in Tokyo.
Japan’s government “on a practical level worries that if they take too strong of a stance, it could affect their economic relations with China,” he added.
For their efforts in lobbying internationally and championing Hong Kong’s democratic movement, Beijing has labeled Wong, Chow and others in their group as separatists courting foreign influence — punishable by life in prison under the security law. Another core member of their group, 27-year-old Nathan Law, fled Hong Kong earlier this year.
Friends of Wong who have visited him in jail ahead of his sentencing say he is being held in solitary confinement with the lights on 24 hours a day, and that he has been using a surgical mask to shield his eyes when trying to sleep.
On Wednesday, Chow, too, will learn how long she will have to serve behind bars. On her seventh day of detention after she was remanded in custody, Chow relayed a message through a friend, who visited her and helped post on her Facebook page.
“I’m not very energetic these days. Because the weather turned cold, I didn’t sleep very well at night and my body doesn’t feel well,” she said. “Knowing that there is a good chance for me to go to prison on Wednesday, my mood has plunged and I am worried.”
Kashiwagi reported from Tokyo. Theodora Yu in Hong Kong and Simon Denyer in Tokyo contributed to this report.