Agnes Chow Ting turned 21 last month and may soon become Hong Kong’s youngest ever lawmaker – if she wins the Legislative Council by-election on March 11.
On Saturday, the pro-democracy activist formally announced that she would run for a seat in the geographical constituency of Hong Kong Island, vacated by her Demosisto political party colleague Nathan Law Kwun-chung. She would be backed by veteran pan-democrats, including founding chairman of the Democratic Party Martin Lee Chu-ming and Civic Party chairman Alan Leong Kah-kit.
Law was 23 when he became one of the best-performing candidates in the 2016 Legco elections with over 50,000 votes.
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But he was subsequently disqualified from the council, along with five other pro-democracy lawmakers, after Beijing ruled that the manner in which they had taken their oaths of office were unconstitutional.
Asked to evaluate her poll chances, Chow took a measured tone when she spoke to the Post on Tuesday.
“We should not be optimistic about the campaign. I would remain composed facing the challenges ahead,” she said.
Indeed, Chow – who recently gave up her British citizenship and now holds only a Hong Kong passport, a requirement to stand for election – is likely to face a rocky road ahead.
Her pro-establishment competitor for the seat, Judy Chan Ka-pui of the New People’s Party, who is in her 30s, has been a district councillor advising the government on community matters for over three years.
While Hong Kong voters generally lean more towards pro-democracy parties – previous polls show electors are split 6:4 between the pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps – Chow has to contend with a tougher crowd. The 623,273 Hong Kong Island voters have the highest education levels across all constituencies and tend to be more evenly split across the political divide.
While the city uses a proportional representation system to return its lawmakers – meaning that to get elected outright, candidates have to hit a quota of votes – the March 11 poll will be a first past the post race, as there is only one seat up for grabs in the six-seat Hong Kong Island constituency.
This would be a repeat of the 2007 by-election, when former No 2 official Anson Chan Fong On-Shan secured over 175,000 votes and beat former security minister Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee for a Hong Kong Island seat.
To detractors scoffing at her youth, Chow said: “I would not see age as a factor at all. We are young, but what we have is the ability and experiences to discuss and deliberate political issues.”
To some extent, she is not a complete greenhorn.
Chow dived into politics in 2012 at the age of 15, when she got hooked on the Facebook posts of Scholarism, the student activist group founded by Joshua Wong Chi-fung, also a Demosisto member.
Wong, together with Law, is currently out on bail pending his appeal against a jail term for his involvement at a protest that led to a 79-day occupation of major roads across Hong Kong in 2014. The sit-in, known as Occupy, was done in the name of civil disobedience for greater democracy.
Chow recalled that when she read the posts, she thought: “Why are these students, at a similar age as me, living a totally different life?”
Driven by curiosity and later, by admiration for the group’s members, she joined them as a volunteer.
That year, Chow took part in a 10-day sit-in at Civic Square – the forecourt of the government headquarters that was recently reopened after a three-year closure – after which the government retreated from a plan to implement Beijing-backed national education policies.
Two years later, Chow was at the front lines of the Occupy movement, as a spokeswoman for Scholarism. But she suddenly chose to bow out of the limelight, saying she was “lost and tired in front of the exceptional pressure”.
Chow on Tuesday revealed that her parents had been extremely worried for her safety, following rumours that Beijing would send in troops to clear the streets.
“One day, when I was at a meeting with Scholarism fellows, I got a call from my parents. They were crying, like suffering from a mental collapse,” Chow recalled.
“They just told me: ‘Go to the airport and leave the square, leave Hong Kong at once!’
“I yelled back at them: calm down!”
“I know they were very worried about me,” Chow continued, admitting that their worries had not entirely faded away.
“We [Demosisto] are opposing the ruling power. They are concerned that this will affect my future.”
Chow said her parents – business owners based in the city who hold British passports – were initially not interested in politics. But after the dramatic phone call, they had more exchanges with her on political issues.
Last month, she got their approval to contest the by-election, before breaking the news to her party colleagues.
“I have decided to shoulder more responsibilities … after witnessing how the dignity of Hongkongers was trampled on in 2017,” Chow said.
She cited in particular the disqualification of the six lawmakers, controversial changes to Legco’s rule book, and the jail sentences doled out to several student activists, including Wong, Law and Ivan Lam Long-yin.
Besides giving up her British passport, the third-year Baptist University politics student has suspended her studies for now.
Chow, who worked for Law’s office in Legco for nine months before he was disqualified, vowed to uphold the rule of law and democracy if elected.
She said she would sign a declaration form – mandated by the city’s government for all election candidates – stating she accepts Hong Kong’s status as an inalienable part of China.
Demosisto has upheld “self-determination” as part of its mission, yet some hawkish Beijing loyalists have suggested that this is no different from pursuing independence from China.
Chow made reference to this when she said: “I still believe Hongkongers have the right to choose our own future. At this stage, it is indeed difficult for us to achieve self-determination … Yet, Hongkongers still have the right to autonomy.”
Officials non-committal on whether disqualified lawmakers allowed to stand in Hong Kong by-elections
The other three seats being contested in the March 11 by-election are for two geographical constituencies – Kowloon West and New Territories East – and the architectural, surveying, planning and landscape functional constituency.
The geographical seats were formerly held by Youngspiration’s Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang, while Edward Yiu Chung-yim was in the functional constituency seat.
The contest for the seats of two other disqualified lawmakers – Lau Siu-lai in Kowloon West and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung in New Territories East – will take place at a later date.