This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Despite pressure from Beijing, South Korea’s biggest human rights group went ahead on Thursday with an award to jailed Hong Kong barrister and rights activist Chow Hang-tung.
The 5.18 Memorial Foundation presented its 2023 Gwangju Human Rights Award to a friend of Chow’s at a ceremony several days after a visit from three Chinese consular officials, who wanted the award withdrawn. The foundation is based in the southwestern Korean city of Gwangju, scene of a pro-democracy uprising that was violently crushed in 1980.
Her friend and fellow activist Na Hyun-Phil received the award on her behalf in a ceremony that took place in pouring rain in Seoul.
Choking up during his speech, Na said he expects not to be allowed to enter China or Hong Kong as a result of receiving the award for her.
“This Human Rights Award represents that we stand with the people of Hong Kong,” said Na, who heads the non-profit Korean House for International Solidarity.
Chow is currently serving a 15-month sentence for “inciting” people to hold a vigil for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
She also stands accused of “incitement to subvert state power,” with the prosecution claiming that she and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China used the now-banned vigils to incite the overthrow of the Chinese government.
Na vowed to light a candle outside the Chinese Embassy in Seoul every year on June 4, the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, until her release.
After the ceremony, he told Radio Free Asia that Chow’s friends and supporters from Hong Kong didn’t dare to turn out at the ceremony for fear of political reprisals.
“The main reason [I accepted the award for her] is because it would be … very risky for Hong Kongers to attend the award ceremony for the Gwangju Human Rights Award,” Na said.
“The award ceremony was a public event, and all of the information [on those who take part] will be publicly available,” he said. “This means that the Chinese government will know who accepted the award on her behalf.”
“They thought that I, as a Korean, would be a better choice, so as to protect her family and friends,” Na said, adding that it would be risky for him to travel to Hong Kong following the event.
“I would very much like to go to Hong Kong, but can’t be sure that it would be safe either for me or other friends there, so I … won’t be going to Hong Kong or mainland China now,” he said.
Na said of Chow that she “shines out like a candle, as the hope of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, so it was fitting for the Gwangju Human Rights Award to go to her.”
“Although I am in South Korea, I want to light a candle for her,” he said. “I will be doing that outside the Chinese Embassy every June 4 until she is released.”
Na said he first lit a candle outside the Chinese Embassy a year after Chow’s arrest following a banned candlelight vigil for the Tiananmen massacre victims on June 4, 2021.
Na said he first met Chow in 2011 at a human rights conference in Taiwan, where they discussed labor rights — an early focus of Chow’s — with rights groups from across the region.
“She is a very sincere person, and really cares about workers,” Na said. “She insists on doing the right thing, and is very principled.”
“She was so passionate about holding candlelight vigils for Tiananmen, and very proud of being able to do it in Hong Kong, which made a big impression on me,” he said.
Na, who also has a background in the labor rights movement, said he visited Hong Kong during the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement.
He said the city had fallen “silent” since the national security law was imposed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in 2020, criminalizing public dissent and peaceful political opposition.
“Hong Kong is a silent society, and we can’t find a way to fight for democracy there right now,” he said.
Chow’s award came as the Weiquanwang rights group reported that former 2019 protester Tan Qiyuan, widely known by her nickname Nicole, was jailed for six years for “incitement to subvert state power” for taking part in the movement.
Tan, a permanent resident of Hong Kong, was detained by police in Guangxi’s Liuzhou city in April 2021 when she took a trip to her parental home after many years of living in Hong Kong.
She had been incommunicado since April 2, 2021, after tweeting prolifically from the front line of the protests.