Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, and Nathan Law
Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, and Nathan Law are three prominent student activists who played a leading role in the 2014 Occupy Central Movement in Hong Kong. All three were imprisoned in August 2017 on charges, initially leveled in 2015, of “unlawful assembly” or “incitement to take part in assembly” stemming from their roles in the protest at Hong Kong Civic Square in September 2014. Since winning their appeals, Hong Kong authorities have continued to harass the activists through filing further court appeals and pursuing criminal prosecution.
The enactment of China’s national security law on June 30, 2020 has escalated harassment and criminal prosecution of free expression and dissent in Hong Kong. Nathan Law left Hong Kong in exile shortly after enactment of the law, while Alex Chow left to study abroad half a year later. Both Nathan Law, in absentia, and Joshua Wong face new charges in connection with rallies in 2019 and 2020, and have been doxxed in retaliation for their activism. Wong was sentenced to 13 and a half months in jail for organizing and incitement to participate in an unauthorized assembly, with additional 4-month and 10-month sentences for an October 2019 rally and a June 2020 Tiananmen vigil respectively. On February 27, 2021, Wong was also charged with subversion for taking part in an unofficial primary election in July 2020, possibly facing life imprisonment.
Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, and Nathan Law are prominent youth activists who, in 2014, emerged as key leaders in the pro-democracy Occupy Central Movement in Hong Kong. The Occupy Central Movement, better known as the “Umbrella Protests,” was a city-wide civil disobedience movement in which tens of thousands of Hong Kongers took to the streets for months.
Joshua Wong is the founder of the political party Demosistō, while Nathan Law is a former congressman (who was controversially removed from his post mere months after being elected) and Alex Chow is the former secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students who is pursuing his doctoral studies at the University of California, Berkeley.
In September 2014, the three activists were involved in the storming of Civic Square, a fenced-off square located outside government buildings in Hong Kong. The storming of Civic Square was a response to reforms imposed by Beijing authorities that limited the pool of candidates considered for the position of chief executive, Hong Kong’s top leader. The protest is considered by many to be one of the catalyzing events for the Umbrella Movement.
As leaders of the Occupy Central movement, the three have faced legal punishment for exercising their rights to freedom of assembly and of expression. Human rights groups and other observers—including PEN America—have expressed their concern that these charges are politicized attempts to crack down on dissenting political expression in Hong Kong.
June 29, 2021: Alex Chow discusses Beijing’s assault on freedom and pro-democracy activist strategies in an interview with the Cato Institute.
May 2021: Wong is sentenced to an additional 10 months in jail on charges of participation in an unauthorized assembly at a Tiananmen vigil on June 4, 2020.
April 13, 2021: Wong is sentenced to an additional 4 months in jail on charges of unauthorized assembly and violating an anti-mask law in connection with an October 2019 rally.
April 7, 2021: Britain grants political asylum to Nathan Law. He has been living in the U.K. since July 2020, and is still wanted by the Hong Kong authorities under the national security law.
February 27, 2021: While in prison, Wong is additionally charged with subversion—facing life imprisonment—under the national security law for taking part in an unofficial vote to pick opposition candidates for a primary election in July 2020.
February 5, 2021: Joshua Wong and four other Hong Kong democracy activists decide to plead guilty to unauthorized assembly at a Tiananmen vigil in 2020. A Hong Kong court issues an arrest warrant for Nathan Law.
December 2020: Living in exile in London, Nathan Law urges U.S. sanctions against top officials and expresses his support for Britain’s offer of a path to citizenship for millions of Hong Kong residents, hoping to build international support for Hong Kong residents. Law meets with Priti Patel, UK Home Secretary, on December 10.
December 2, 2020: A West Kowloon magistrates court sentences Wong to 13 and a half months in jail on charges of organizing and incitement to participate in an unauthorized assembly in 2019. The judge reportedly considered Wong’s prior record in determining his sentence, claiming that Wong and his co-defendants “committed the offense in a joint enterprise under the prevailing circumstances of increasing incidents of social unrest and large scale public protests.”
November 23, 2020: Joshua Wong pleads guilty to charges of organizing and inciting an unauthorized assembly near police headquarters in June 2019, brought against him the following month. He maintains his innocence on a third charge of knowingly participating in an unauthorized assembly. Wong remains accused of further protest-related charges from October 2019 and June 4, 2020. The court takes him immediately into remand, rejecting a bail plea.
September 30, 2020: The Eastern Magistrate Court extends travel restrictions on Joshua Wong, preventing him from leaving Hong Kong, while restrictions on his co-defendant had been lifted for his most recent charge of “taking part in an illegal assembly.”
September 24, 2020: During a routine police station visit per conditions of his bail, police arrest Wong for participating in an assembly and violating the ban on masks, in connection with an October 2019 rally. Police release Wong several hours later.
September 15, 2020: Wong and two dozen other democracy activists appear in court to hear the charges of taking part in an illegal assembly in connection with the June 4 vigil. While named in the charges, Nathan Law remains in exile overseas.
August 6, 2020: Authorities charge Wong, Law, and 24 others with taking part in an illegal assembly after participating in a banned candlelight vigil on June 4 to mark the anniversary of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. The charge existed before the national security law came into effect on June 30.
July 29, 2020: Joshua Wong is banned from running in the upcoming legislative election along with 11 other pro-independence, pro-democracy candidates.
July 2, 2020: Nathan Law announces he has fled Hong Kong for fear of imprisonment under the new national security law. Days later, at least nine books written by democracy activists begin disappearing from Hong Kong’s public libraries or have been marked as “under review,” including two written by Joshua Wong in 2013 and 2015.
June 29, 2020: Hours after China passes the national security law, Demosistō, the pro-democracy group led by Wong, disbands. On Twitter, Wong wrote, “If my voice will not be heard soon, I hope that the international community will continue to speak up for Hong Kong and step up concrete efforts to defend our last bit of freedom.” The full text of the law, made public only after endorsed by lawmakers, establishes maximum sentences of life in prison for cases of terrorism, secession, subversion of state power, and collusion with foreign forces.
June 22, 2020: Nathan Law and Joshua Wong publicly announce that they will run for office in the Hong Kong Legislative Council Elections in September 2020.
April 16, 2020: Wong and fellow founding member of the political organization Demosistō, Agnes Chow, file a judicial review complaining that four court warrants granted to police to access their phones and personal information breached their privacy. Their phones had been confiscated following their arrests the previous summer during Hong Kong’s mass protests against the controversial extradition law. Wong and Chow argue that the vague wording of the search warrant, which did not specify the identities of the suspects, would allow police to search more than 3,700 phones belonging to other protestors that were confiscated last summer.
February 14, 2020: The Hong Kong government wins an appeal against a lower court’s decision that declared a policy of limiting public access to Civic Square unconstitutional and a breach of civil rights. The Court of Appeal said it was “perfectly lawful” for the administration to tighten security and concluded that the restrictions imposed were “proportionate to the legitimate aims” of ensuring safe and secure operations of the government headquarters. The square is an ideal location for protest activity due to its proximity to the headquarters, and Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, and Nathan Law were arrested for participating in a protest there in 2014.
January 19, 2020: Wong criticized recent police atrocities in a speech at a peaceful protest when police ordered the dissolution of the crowd before using tear gas and opening fire on civilians.
December 19, 2019: Joshua Wong claims that state-sponsored hackers seized text messages from his phone and provided them to Hong Kong police without a warrant. The authorities include Wong’s text messages in a list of evidence submitted to the court.
October 29, 2019: Joshua Wong, who has been arrested twice since mass protests in Hong Kong, is barred from running in local district council elections after an official said his calls for “self-determination” in the territory were inconsistent with pledging an oath of allegiance to the city and its constitution.
September 17, 2019: Joshua Wong and fellow activist Denise Ho testify before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China in Washington DC, and call for lawmakers to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.
June 21, 2019: Joshua Wong, while walking to a train station, is again arrested on three charges related to unlawfully organizing a rally that same day, at which protesters blockaded police headquarters for 15 hours. Wong is released on HK$10,000 bail following his first court appearance on the day of his arrest, with the condition that he obey a curfew from 11pm to 7am and report to the police once a week, and is also barred from leaving Hong Kong, with the exception of the two pre-arranged trips in September.
June 17, 2019: Joshua Wong is released early from prison after only serving a month of his two-month sentence. This came just one day after protests against a controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong that would have allowed the transfer of prisoners to jurisdictions HK currently lacks an extradition agreement with, including mainland China. Upon release, Wong said he would join the fight against the bill and called on the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step down.
May 16, 2019: Joshua Wong started serving his two-month sentence in prison on charges related to the 2014 Hong Kong protests, including contempt of court for refusing to leave a protest site.
April 3, 2019: Joshua Wong appeals his contempt of court charges. The court postpones judgment on the case, allowing Wong out on bail in the meantime after serving six days of his original three-month sentence.
July 4, 2018: A Hong Kong court rules against democracy activist Wong. The judge sides with the police officer’s claim that despite not putting Wong under arrest, the officer believed there was a “real need” for police officers to handcuff Wong at the protest. Deputy Adjudicator Simon Ho dismisses Wong’s claim and orders him to pay HK$8,062 in legal fees. Wong says he will appeal his case to a higher court.
June 7, 2018: Wong sues the Commissioner of Police for assault and false imprisonment due to the police officer handcuffing Wong prior to placing him under arrest. Wong seeks compensation of HK $45,000.
February 6, 2018: Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, and Nathan Law win their appeal, and the charges and jail sentence are dropped; however, the future sentencing guidelines for illegal protests have been harsher, which may include jail sentences. In another Umbrella Movement-related court case, Wong is granted bail. After failing to comply with an injunction to clear a Mong Kok protest site, Wong was charged with contempt of court and was sentenced to three months behind bars.
November 7, 2017: The Hong Kong Court of Appeal grants Alex Chow bail, and schedules the three’s appeal hearing for January 16, 2018.
October 23, 2017: Joshua Wong and Nathan Law are released on bail.
October 13, 2017: Joshua Wong is found guilty on charges of contempt of court for failing to comply with an order to vacate the streets of the Mong Kok commercial district in November 2014.
September 2017: Alex Chow, Nathan Law, and Joshua Wong all file applications seeking to appeal their jail sentences.
August 2017: The three activists receive their new sentences: Joshua Wong receives six months’ imprisonment, Alex Chow receives seven months’ imprisonment, and Nathan Law receives eight months’ imprisonment. The new sentences leave the activists ineligible for seeking political audience for the next five years. At the time of the sentencing, PEN America declares the new sentences “represent a low point in Hong Kong’s commitment to freedom of speech and assembly,” and further declared them “a nakedly transparent effort not only to punish these three young men for their political views, but to forestall them from playing a role in Hong Kong’s political future.”
July 14, 2017: Nathan Law is disqualified from his seat, alongside several other pro-democracy lawmakers, over allegations that they incorrectly took the oath of office.
July 6, 2017: Joshua Wong pleads guilty to charges of contempt of court.
October 2016: The Court of Appeal agrees to hear a government appeal against the original sentence.
September 2016: The Hong Kong Department of Justice requests a review of the sentences. The magistrate rules that the original sentencing and reasoning was sufficient.
In the September elections, Nathan Law is elected as a member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, becoming the youngest elected candidate in history.
August 2016: After the Beijing-backed local government successfully pushes for harsher punishments, the original sentences of the three activists to community service are appealed. Joshua Wong is instead sentenced to a prison term of six months, while Nathan Law and Alex Chow are given eight and seven months, respectively. Their prison sentences preclude them from running for any public office for five years.
August 2016: Wong and Law are sentenced to community service, Chow receives a suspended sentence.
July 2016: Chow, Wong, and Law are found guilty.
April 2016: Joshua Wong, alongside 19 others, is summoned on charges of contempt of court for obstructing the execution of the court’s order for clearance of the central commercial area in Mong Kok.
August 2015: Wong, Chow, and Law are formally charged with “unlawful assembly and incitement to take part in assembly.”
September–December 2014: Occupy Central is launched and protests continue into early December.
September 27, 2014: Protesters first assemble at Civic Square.
FREE EXPRESSION IN HONG KONG
The convictions of Wong, Law, and Chow have occurred against a backdrop of diminishing civic freedoms for Hong Kong. PEN America has documented the shrinking space for media diversity in the territory, and the 2016 kidnappings of five booksellers by security officials from the Chinese mainland. In November 2016, PEN America sent a publisher’s delegation to Hong Kong to present and discuss the findings of the report on the kidnapping of the booksellers; in this time, they met with Nathan Law and other legislators and free expression advocates.
Joshua Wong in particular is a high-profile activist and has been subject to several formal and informal restrictions on his freedom of expression. In October 2016, Wong accepted an invitation to travel to Thailand to speak about his experience of the Umbrella Movement at an event hosted by Chulalongkorn University. Wong was detained upon arrival, and after 12 hours was deported to Hong Kong. Wong claimed that the authorities would say no more than that he had been blacklisted. In addition, in July 2017, PEN Hong Kong (the Hong Kong chapter of PEN International) was refused the opportunity to launch a literary anthology at the Asia Society Hong Kong due to their proposed inclusion of Joshua Wong as a speaker.
IN THEIR WORDS
On September 9, 2020, two weeks before he’s arrested on the 24th, Joshua Wong writes “China is targeting and arresting Hong Kong dissidents. I could be next,” published in the Washington Post.
In a series of tweets made on August 17, 2017, Joshua Wong expressed his faith in the spirit of Hong Kong activists, stating, “They can silence protests, remove us from the legislature and lock us up. But they will not win the hearts and minds of Hongkongers.”
Joshua Wong has written a series of articles for The Guardian: