Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Unassuming Heroism of Hong Kong's Agnes Chow

Agnes Chow Ting: on a regular day (left); and on the morning of August 10, when police arrested her at her family's home (right).

Earlier this week, the People's Republic of China's enormous Communist Party moved the forces of its unfettered power against someone it perceives to be a threat to the "security" of a nation of one and a half billion people. This dangerous secessionist revolutionary, plotter with foreign enemies, and instigator of disruption between Hong Kong and the Motherland is "disguised" as a university student barely beyond her girlhood years. She "seems" like an "ordinary kid" who would rather be reading, watching Japanese cartoons, studying, swimming, playing her flute, or spending time with her friends.

The Party, however, knows better. Thus a special police unit arrested 23-year-old Agnes Chow Ting on August 10th, implementing the procedures of the infamous new 'National Security Law.' She has since been released on bail, and it's not clear whether any charges have been filed against her... yet.

Agnes Chow is a danger to China's "national security"? Really?

It must be said that while Agnes may be young and soft spoken, she is very articulate about her convictions. She cannot be silent in front of the CCP's efforts to swallow Hong Kong and erase its identity and civil liberties. But it is "dangerous" indeed, in today's Hong Kong, to disagree with the ideas and plans of the Communist Party in Beijing and the local forces it controls. It is especially dangerous to attempt to communicate your objections to people in other countries that have relations with China - countries that acknowledge the very peculiar arrangement of Hong Kong's "special autonomy" under the provision of One-Country-Two-Systems; countries whose people expect a bare minimum of respect for civilized society within the States that participate in the community of nations (or at least a plausible veneer of respect that - hopefully - puts some limits on violent, unaccountable oppression of persons by their own governments).

It is dangerous, in today's Hong Kong, for an "ordinary kid" to cry out for justice, or even for decency, courtesy, humanity....

Agnes Chow Ting is variously referred to as "Agnes Chow," with the stress on her "Anglo" first name (which for her is also her Catholic baptismal name) or "Agnes Chow Ting," which includes her Chinese given name "Ting" (meaning 'slim' or 'graceful'), or "Zhou Ting" which is the modern Chinese transliteration of her Chinese name, with the family name first as is customary.

[NOTE: Hong Kong's democracy moment is pluralist and "secular," of course, which doesn't preclude the fact that some of its participants (including Agnes Chow) are inspired by their Christian faith. While I discuss many secular events in this blog, my own Catholic Christianity is "in plain sight" and (I hope and pray) always informing and focusing my attention on the whole of reality in all its factors, even in articles that don't explicitly make reference to God, Jesus Christ, or the Church. 

In this piece I will make references to faith, not in order to advocate theocracy (I don't), but because I am looking at a human person who is a Catholic. Agnes Chow acknowledges her faith but doesn't emphasize it in her political activism. The Hong Kong Movement includes a wide variety of people from different religious or non-religious backgrounds, and in any case "flying a Catholic flag" would not help her cause or the Church in present circumstances. I don't know how strong or thoroughly catechized her faith is, or any particulars about her journey in following Jesus Christ, but she is an impressive and brave human being and I'm inclined to presume that her faith is foundational and vital, even if I don't know how "coherent" it is for her. 

And my readers won't be surprized that I am jazzed by the fact that her baptismal name is "Agnes"!😉 It's a good name, and it establishes a connection in the "Communion of Saints" with a singularly courageous girl from 1700 years ago. I also have an "Agnes" - my daughter Agnese Janaro - who is nearly 22 years old, which is if nothing else a constant reminder for me of the "youth" factor in this Hong Kong movement. From what I know, I could easily imagine my daughter and Agnes Chow being friends. In any case, I'm going to refer to Agnes Chow Ting as "Agnes," not because of my "Western cultural bias" but because it is the most immediate human and personal connection I have with her in that great, transcendent and also totally real "family" that is Christ's Church.]

Agnes Chow was an unlikely political activist. Her appearance as an "ordinary kid" is no disguise; she really was an ordinary kid (and continues to be an ordinary young woman). Nothing marks her out as "revolutionary" by temperament or inclination.

She was a shy kid who was (and still is) close to her family, who worked hard in school but wasn't noted as being "extraordinary." She didn't have lots of friends, and felt awkward about herself in early adolescence. She never dreamed of doing anything like public speaking. She liked to swim. She played in the school orchestra. She had a lively imagination, and was fascinated (as are kids today all over the world) by the wide variety of Japanese animated stories that are classified under the genre of "Anime." (In a future post, I need to write about the world of "Anime," and the diverse and sometimes intense themes it deals with: from nihilism and bizarre criminality to the search for deeper identity and moral conviction.) But on all these points, Agnes Chow came across as a nice 21st century high school girl from a good home with a loving family, who was struggling with all the normal problems of growing up.

At the age of 15, the last thing on her mind was politics. But then she saw pictures on Facebook of high school students publically protesting the attempt by the mainland to impose a "moral and patriotic education" program in their schools. Here were other kids her age, marching in the streets. They argued that the "patriotic education program" was really a program of Chinese Communist PartyState brainwashing and propaganda. Agnes researched it for herself on the internet, and it didn't take her long to find that she agreed with their judgment.

Sometimes young people can "smell a rat" in situations where the adults are fumbling around with their noses plugged by understandable adult preoccupations like "I want to keep my job" or "we need to keep this school open" or "we can make this program 'work' by stressing the good stuff and ignoring the rat as much as possible" or (a very real and anxious preoccupation, especially for educators) "we need to keep the donors happy" (alas, kids, be merciful to your elders - someday you will understand that even great ideals are not realized in this world without money, and you must struggle with all of money's power and complexity and the compromises it demands; though you don't need to sacrifice your integrity for money, you will be tempted and you will make mistakes, and you will need to pray as you spend more time and energy than you ever imagined in this perpetual wrestling match with the necessities and dangers of money).

It must be said, a significant group of teachers were pretty quick to call "B.S." in this case. This was a large, stinky rat. Still, the students smelled it first. And they didn't just argue against it. They made a student "strike," and gathered by the thousands outside the government offices and held a continual demonstration. Agnes Chow's internet searching eventually landed her on the website of a high school student group called "Scholarism." She decided to volunteer to help.

Her conviction and commitment moved her forward. At first she was afraid of practically everything that was "public," even handing out flyers. But, as she later remarked, she realized that "You must overcome your fear, and do it" and this, in turn, "makes [you] more and more brave to try the next step." Soon, the shy 15-year-old girl was introducing other speakers, then participating in press conferences and giving her own public speeches. She became one of the faces and voices of the Scholarism group, often appearing next to the brilliant, intense boy with black glasses who was its leader: Joshua Wong. They made much more "noise" than the PartyState had expected or wanted, and so the government withdrew the mandate for the program.

It was a victory for education, for truth... and it was won by the kids.

No, their parents didn't put them up to it. Agnes's parents have worried a lot about her (and I don't blame them). They are not political activists. They are devout Catholics, and they raised their daughter to care about justice, the common good, and helping those in need. They taught her not to live by lies.

That's enough to turn your kid into a radical in today's Hong Kong.

Agnes continued to work with Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam, Nathan Law, and other Hong Kong young people during the "Umbrella Revolution" protests of 2014, and she co-founded a political group called Demosisto. She ran for the Legislative Council, but was disqualified by election officers because of Demosisto's position that Hong Kong people have a right to "self-determination." Then she traveled to educate others about Hong Kong, and gained supporters especially in Japan (Agnes speaks Yue Chinese [i.e. "Cantonese," the distinctive speech of southern China, very different from the now-standardized Mandarin originating in the northeast], Mandarin Chinese also [I assume], English, Japanese, and Korean).

Now she's been arrested, and may well be rearrested once some remotely plausible "charges" against her can be invented. They want to make her disappear. Indeed, they are right to consider her a threat... not to "the people," but to themselves. Agnes Chow is a talented, dedicated, courageous young woman who is speaking truth to power.

Dear blog readers, you know me. If great events are in the making, I always want to know "who is the heroine in this story?" Inevitably there is at least one, and usually there are many. Certainly "heroes" - i.e. heroic men - interest me very much, but I still find that I'm drawn in a particular way to the heroic women of history.

I'm not sure why.

Maybe it's because they're underestimated and their significance is too often underappreciated. Maybe it's because they're particularly eloquent about the impact of historical events on their personal interiority. They illuminate the personal dimension of history, articulating through their own experience how events involve the drama of persons, relationships, families, and communities.

Maybe it's because I was raised by a heroic woman, I married a heroic woman, and I have four daughters (and now a daughter-in-law) who are heroines-in-the-making (each in their own way). They have already proven to be quite tenacious and impressive in their own aspirations and achievements.

Now let me be clear; I am not "expecting" giant-sized accomplishments or imposing preconceived notions of greatness on anyone: I'm not pushing my girls to climb Mount Everest or fly a spaceship or become President - if they want to, that's fine, but what matters (for women and men) is to be faithful to one's vocation, to seek God's will, to worship Him, adhere to Him, and find one's fulfillment in Him.

This usually involves the hidden, apparently ordinary fidelity in daily life that forms the foundation of the specifically (and uniquely) Christian heroism called sanctity. We are all called to become saints, by the grace of the Spirit, following Jesus, loving God and our neighbor. Sometimes we are also called to take on outwardly heroic roles on different levels of historical action.

And although Hong Kong undoubtedly needs saints (and they may have some new martyrs before this ends), our discussion of the drama of Hong Kong right now primarily concerns terrestrial affairs. The greatness we mark as beginning to emerge here is temporal, political, and social. It is also incipient. It is still mostly in the realm of aspirations, initial efforts, possibilities, and the willingness to take big risks. It is not without flaws and pitfalls, and it needs much clarification and purification. It calls for not only courage, but also wisdom, patience, flexibility, and more than a little luck. Here I suppose the old adage could be applied: "Some are born for greatness, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."

One of the signs that a social movement is driven by genuine, healthy, sincere aspirations for human dignity and freedom (as opposed to "tribalism," ideology, the lust for power, or the seeking of revenge) is the degree to which it finds itself being carried along by "unlikely" heroes and heroines. There may be gifted leaders and visionary thinkers in such movements, of course, but it's reassuring to find at the heart of it all that there are many people who are shaping events - great events - simply as a consequence of their decision to do the right thing. They make a commitment to something that they recognize to be good, they stick with it, and then - often without even realizing it - their own stature grows.

One of the reasons I hold real hopes that something good will come from the Hong Kong Revolution is that it involves so many people who are just trying to do the right thing. They are not troublemakers, thugs, egoists, or ideologues who want to change the foundations of reality or engineer a new kind of human being. They just want respect for basic human dignity, for themselves and for everyone in their society.

This is a "revolution" that was literally started by high school kids... and not primarily the rebellious, psychologically traumatized kids, but precisely the "good kids." They have everything to gain in terms of wealth, social status, and opportunities for themselves by playing along with (or at least ignoring) the emerging system that is taking over Hong Kong. But they refuse to play along with the system. They have been challenging the system for eight years, and are now putting their young lives in iminent danger. And there is clearly only one reason why they continue to do this.

They know that this emerging Communist PartyState-dominated system is wrong. What it's trying to do to their people is wrong.

In the end, the young people of Hong Kong may have to endure the system's oppression, but right now, they have a chance to make a difference. They have a chance to take a stand that will write an indellible chapter in the history of their people. These are the circumstances that shape the history of a people, even if - at the time, for all we can see - their protagonists "fail" to attain an immediately quantifiable objective.

Ordinary people will make sacrifices and take risks in order to sow seeds that will bear fruit in time.

This is the hope of Agnes Chow Ting. She hopes for "the dawn" that will come after a long long night. She expressed this in poetic form on Instagram during last Summer's protests:

A very rough English translation conveys something of the sense of her words:

"In this city where bullets fly, 
how extravagant is a smile.
The breeze smelled like tear gas,
blowing the untied hair frizzy and curly, 
and the neatly combed bangs became messy. 
Holding the black helmet recently picked up on the street, 
with a gas mask around the neck, 
putting the eye mask on the forehead temporarily, 
preparing for an unknown nightmare. 
We have been looking forward to the coming of the morning dawn. 
Look, the orange sun illuminates our faces in beautiful and warm colors.  
It is not dazzling; we can remove the helmet 
and look at the beautiful morning light with hope. 
In this city where bullets fly, 
I hope we can continue to remember the warmth of the dawn."

When I read this, I wrote her a message of support. But I wanted to support more than just the political struggle. I wanted to reach out to her as a person, and help her to remember what makes these efforts (and everything else) ultimately worthwhile:
"Agnes Chow, your reflections move me deeply. You are so young for so much suffering (my children are your age), but God will lead you.
"Your patron Saint Agnes was a girl who stood up against the power of Ancient Rome, and Jesus gave her strength to be faithful to the end. Today the people in Rome still love her. She will help you too, and all the brave girl saints of history (think of Joan of Arc), and the beautiful Chinese martyrs.
"I know we never feel as brave as these saints and heroes, but they are here for us. They understand you and all your fears and they will help you to be the person God wants you to be in the place He has given to you: your beloved Hong Kong, the terrible evils you face, your own struggles, your friends’ needs.
"Jesus will never abandon you. He is always there to give you the strength you need and to forgive you, so that you need not condemn yourself. Go to Him with everything.
"Pray. This is the revolution.
"We are praying with you and for you. I pray for Hong Kong, but not only for that, but for you as a person. Jesus has placed you in this movement for freedom, and He wills that it will have enduring value (even if you don’t “win”) - but He loves you first for yourself, always, whatever may come, whatever your own failures too.
"He loves you. Trust in Him for everything!"