Incoming UC Berkeley doctoral candidate jailed after leading pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong

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Weeks before Alex Chow was set to attend UC Berkeley in the fall, he was arrested by Hong Kong government officials for his lead role in initiating 79 days of pro-democracy protests.

Chow, who at the time of his arrest had completed a master’s degree program in city design at the London School of Economics, or LSE, was due to pursue a doctorate in geography on campus this fall. According to chair of the campus geography department Nathan Sayre, Chow was planning to study nonviolent social movements.

The unrest began in August 2014, when the Chinese government ruled that Hong Kong residents would only be able to vote for their 2017 chief executive, the head of Hong Kong government, from a list of candidates pre-approved by Chinese officials.

Frustrated by the ruling straight from Beijing, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, led by its former secretary-general Chow, staged a weeklong boycott of classes beginning Aug. 22, 2014.

Out of this ongoing controversy began the Umbrella Movement, co-led by Nathan Law, Joshua Wong and Chow. Hundreds of Hong Kong students stormed government offices in the Admiralty area Sept. 26, 2014, in an effort to “take back” Civic Square, which had previously been a popular site for protests. Government officials had ordered the construction of a three-meter fence around the plaza in 2014 after several major demonstrations took place.

In response, thousands of protesters, run by the civil disobedience movement Occupy Central, took to the streets Sept. 28, 2014, to join students in advocating for a more democratic election process. This sparked what would become a 79-day occupation of Hong Kong’s financial district.

Even after months of protests, the Chinese government refused to give the protesters the democratic election process they wanted. Instead, a lower court found Chow and Wong guilty in November 2014 of unlawful assembly outside Hong Kong’s government headquarters, with Law found guilty of inciting others to take part in an unlawful assembly. Chow was originally given a suspended sentence, while Law and Wong were both sentenced to community service.

After Law and Wong fulfilled their court-mandated service, a higher court overturned the original ruling Aug. 17 to re-sentence Wong and Law to six and eight months respectively in prison, and Chow to seven.

The prison sentences also ban the trio from running for public office for the next five years.

In a statement, Chow expressed disappointment over his sentencing, calling the judges’ decision an “injustice.” He encouraged people, however, to join together with “love, courage, tenderness and care to the earth” to continue to fight for democracy.

“Social progress begins here, with our heart,” Chow said in the statement.

According to Sayre, the China director at Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson, said the new ruling “made her blood run cold.” The sentence read like it had been written by a judge in Beijing, which, she said, is strange because most sentences from Hong Kong read like they are written in London.

Maya Wang, a senior researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the Hong Kong government’s decision to impose a heavier prison sentence on the three students appears to be “politically motivated.” According to Wang, the government’s decision was designed to punish the trio for their leading roles in the Umbrella Movement and to intentionally bar them from running for Hong Kong public office in this year’s elections.

Immediately after Chow’s sentencing, Sarah Barnes, a student at the London School of Economics and a friend and classmate of Chow’s, created a petition for his release. The petition, which had 4,985 signatures as of press time, will be sent to LSE director of research Julia Black once it reaches 5,000 signatures.

“The people are coming back with the message that they won’t be put off by these arrests, and they won’t back down from fighting for democracy,” Barnes said. “Democracy is something that can be stripped away. We have to fight for it, even in 2017.”

In a statement released by LSE’s School Management Committee, LSE said it had already contacted the UK government and Hong Kong authorities in an attempt to understand Chow’s situation and ensure his well-being. LSE added that Chow has made a “highly positive contribution” to the school and is well-respected by his professors and peers.

Many people in the UC Berkeley community also expressed their support. Hector Chan, president of the Hong Kong Student Association, said in an email that Chow occupied Civic Square not for his own personal interests but to fight for referendum and democracy in Hong Kong — a “fundamental right in the American community.”

Campus head graduate advisor for geography John Chiang said he was “disheartened” by Chow’s sentencing, but he affirmed the geography department’s faith and support for Chow as an incoming doctoral student. Sayre added that Chow can continue to pursue his doctorate after he is released and that the department is willing to wait.

“When the emotions of sadness, grief, anger, depression haunt us, only the profound love can liberate us and prevent our heart(s) from crumbling,” Chow said in a statement.

Amber Tang covers student life. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @ambertang_dc.