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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong film shines light on Japan support for Chinese activists

With approval for local release on hold, '709 Companions' seeks global audience

Veteran Hong Kong journalist Lo King-wah has directed the new documentary "709 Companions" that depicts the ordeal of lawyers targeted by the Chinese government and their families. (Photo provided by Lo King-wah)

HONG KONG -- Human rights lawyers in mainland China have long lived under surveillance and fear of detention, especially since Beijing rounded up hundreds of attorneys in the so-called "709 Incident" of July 9, 2015.

Veteran Hong Kong journalist Lo King-wah has directed a new documentary "709 Companions" that depicts what those lawyers and their families have been through. It follows 2017's "709 Fellows" and last year's "709 The Other Shore."

The new film focuses on two longtime supporters of the attorneys -- Tomoko Ako, a professor at the University of Tokyo, and Albert Ho Chun-yan, chairman of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group in Hong Kong, who commissioned the film.

Ho, a longtime pro-democracy activist and former lawmaker in the territory, has received two arrest warrants since April. The first was for organizing unauthorized protests against a proposed extradition bill that was ultimately withdrawn last year after massive street protests. The other was for allegedly inciting people to participate in a candlelit vigil on June 4 to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown in Beijing. He was also beaten up by an unidentified mob with metal rods in September, with the suspects yet to be arrested.

Ako was instrumental in facilitating the escape to the U.S. of the family of human rights lawyer Wen Donghai in March. Wen, one of many attorneys targeted by Beijing, drew the wrath of Beijing authorities after he stood as a defense lawyer for Wang Yu, a prominent human rights lawyer arrested during the 709 Incident.

Tomoko Ako, a professor at the University of Tokyo, was instrumental in facilitating the escape to the U.S. of the family of Chinese human rights lawyer Wen Donghai in March. (Photo from the film “709 Companions”) 

Wen is now in their sights again as he attended a private gathering of lawyers and citizens in December last year in the southern coastal city of Xiamen to discuss current affairs, the future of China, and building a civil society in the country. Participants were accused of "subverting state power," which triggered a new round of arrests of lawyers from Dec. 26.

On the advice of friends, Wen let his wife, Zhou Youfang, and their two elementary school aged children fly to Japan in December. They had been planning a trip to the country and had visas.

The three first stayed in a lodge and later in a small room in an old factory in a town in northern Japan, but since they were burning cash and living uncomfortably, Ako, a Japanese sociologist specializing in human rights and social inequalities in China, stepped in. She brought them to her Tokyo flat where she lives with her husband and young son.

After staying in the apartment for almost two months, Zhou and her children were granted visas to the U.S. They flew to Texas in mid-March, just before border restrictions were tightened due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Chen Jiangang, another Chinese human rights lawyer who fled with his family last summer and currently a fellow at American University in Washington, said he was "extremely moved" when he learned Ako took care of Wen's family.

Ako has also previously provided temporary refuge for Chinese human rights lawyers and their families. The documentary depicts how the Osaka-native became involved in helping activist lawyers while teaching full-time at Japan's top university.

She also accompanied Xu Yan, wife of Yu Wenshan, a human rights lawyer who has defended Falun Gong practitioners and a vocal opponent of President Xi Jinping's abolition of term limits for China's top leader, to a prison in the eastern Chinese city of Xuzhou in March. Along with Hu Jia, a veteran activist in Beijing, they screamed messages outside the prison walls to encourage Yu as they were not allowed to meet him.

Xu Yan, center, screams outside China's Xuzhou prison to send her message to her husband and a human rights lawyer Yu Wenshan, who was later put on secret trial and sentenced to four years in prison. (Screen shot from the film “709 Companions”)

"I got scared as the guards started yelling and chasing after us," Ako told the Nikkei Asian Review in a recent phone interview. She decided to cut short her stay in Xuzhou and returned to Beijing to avoid possible trouble. Yu was secretly tried last May -- just two months after their visit -- and sentenced to four years in prison for "subverting state power." Xu was informed about the trial more than a year later.

Ako was also key to the documentary in another way. Her academic trip to China was the only chance for Lo, the director, to obtain original content in the mainland for his third film. Ako personally reconnected herself in Beijing with lawyers and their families -- including Li Wenzu. Li is the wife of Wang Quanzhang, who was arrested in the 709 Incident and released in April after serving a four-and-a-half year sentence on the same charges as Wen and Yu.

"Actually, the film was a Hong Kong and Japanese collaboration," Lo told Nikkei. He made a few trips to Japan to shoot various scenes, including the Wen family and Ako's other activities, but avoided going to China himself over what he calls "safety concerns."

The first two films in the series played in Hong Kong with no problems. But there is no plan to publicly show it there as approval from the city's government took too long and the organizer gave up.

The Hong Kong government explained to Nikkei that it was abiding by the law, including in its request for supplementary information and clarification, though refrained from going into further detail as "the particulars of individual applications would not be disclosed to any third party."

Ho sees the situation for what it is, but is not backing down. "This is the consequence of the national security law," he told Nikkei, referring to Chinese legislation imposed on Hong Kong on June 30 that sets penalties for crimes of secession, subversion of state power, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Lawyers, activists and human rights groups have characterized it as a power play by China to quash freedoms guaranteed for the former British colony when the mainland regained sovereignty in 1997.

"The Hong Kong-style '709 Incident' could fall on us in a not so distant future," he said at an online symposium commemorating its fifth anniversary. He understands the risk of being charged for "subverting state power" under the national security law. "I will not give up, just like our friends and colleagues in mainland China," he said.

Wang Yu, who was also targeted in the 709 Incident, also spoke at the symposium. "There are too many victims in China -- those who are arrested, those who are made to disappear," Wang said. And while she is thankful for the international backing, she also feels it is "limited" compared with the number of people needing support.

Ho's group is exploring the possibility of screening the film overseas, like the previous two, while Ako is aiming to prepare Japanese subtitles and premiere it in Japan by the end of the year.

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