While the world focuses on the detention and release of Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai, it’s the plight of 23-year-old activist Agnes Chow that has made the battle over human rights in the city personal for many in Japan.
Chow, a Japanese speaker who helped galvanize support for the pro-democracy movement, has been dubbed "the goddess of democracy” by local media, in a reference to a statue created by protesters at Tiananmen Square.
The activist’s arrest was front page news in local papers Tuesday and the hashtag #FreeAgnes trended on Japanese Twitter. TV showed a masked and bespectacled Chow being pushed into a van and driven away in the dark.
She was released about a day later, prompting a fresh hashtag that can be translated as "Agnes Chow freed on bail” to trend on Twitter on Wednesday in Japan.
Speaking to reporters outside a police station, Chow said that she had been arrested four times while engaging in activities in Hong Kong but that the latest arrest was the scariest.
"It's obviously a political prosecution and political suppression," Chow told reporters after she was freed on a 200,000 Hong Kong dollar ($25,800) surety and cash bail. "The reason for my arrest I was told was that I colluded with foreign forces by using social media between July and present, but the accusations were vague and I don't completely understand why I was arrested."
Chow said that her passport had been confiscated, adding that she is unsure whether she will be indicted.
Speaking to reporters in Japanese, the 23-year-old thanked her supporters in Japan. "My lawyer told me that while I was detained, I had received encouragement and support from people in Japan. Thank you very much."
A cross-party group of about 30 Japanese lawmakers condemned the arrests and said in a statement Wednesday "the government of Hong Kong is attempting to suppress pro-democracy movements by pressuring citizens of Hong Kong and media organizations.” The Japan Parliamentary Alliance on China also urged Tokyo to deny any requests for evidence from China and Hong Kong based on the new national security law for the city.
Chow’s detention could prove a further blow to ties between the two countries. Beijing’s clampdown on Hong Kong, as well as China’s ratcheting up of tensions around disputed East China Sea islands and its standoff with the United States, had already shaken the relationship between Asia’s two largest economies.
In a sign of unity across the political spectrum over the issue, Japanese Communist Party leader Kazuo Shii had tweeted a call for Chow’s release before she was freed on bail.
When asked Tuesday about the arrests, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga reiterated that the government was extremely concerned about the situation in Hong Kong. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a briefing that Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s internal affairs and Tokyo should stop interfering.
While Tokyo has been relatively cautious about criticizing the country’s biggest trading partner, lawmakers have been more outspoken, with some in the right-leaning LDP seeking to cancel a state visit by President Xi Jinping following China’s clampdown on Hong Kong.
Chow’s Japanese-language Twitter account has not been updated since June 30, when she announced she was leaving pro-democracy organization Demosisto. She ended her final post with the words: "While we’re alive, there’s hope.”
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