Agnes Chow, Mulan and a Hong Kong Protest Meme

HONG KONG — Soon after one of Hong Kong’s best-known democracy activists was arrested this week under the national security law imposed on the city by the Chinese government, supporters turned her into a “Mulan” meme.

The social media storm around the activist, Agnes Chow, coincided with Disney’s online campaign for its upcoming movie “Mulan,” about the Chinese folk heroine who disguises herself as a man to stand in for her ailing father in the army. Disney’s slogan: “The legend arrives.”

Supporters on Twitter quickly anointed Ms. Chow, 23, “the real Mulan.” One meme featured three images, each accompanied by text: the “Mulan” star Liu Yifei (“I want the real Mulan”); the cartoon version of Mulan from Disney’s animated 1998 film (“I said the real Mulan”); and Ms. Chow (“Perfection”).

The dueling campaigns illustrated the power of rapid-fire memes to serve as a howl of virtual protest: Ms. Chow’s name, along with #Mulan, has been trending for days. They also merged Hollywood fantasy with 21st-century geopolitics and ancient Chinese folklore.

They come at a fraught moment for Hong Kong, as activists and others lament a loss of freedom under the security law imposed six weeks ago, and as tensions deepen between China and Western nations over the fate of the semiautonomous territory.

Ms. Chow, a former leader of the now-disbanded pro-democracy group Demosisto, was among 10 people arrested on Monday on suspicion of violating the security law. She was detained hours after 200 police officers converged on the newsroom of Apple Daily, a publication owned by the media mogul Jimmy Lai, who is a vocal critic of the Chinese government. He, his two sons and other executives from his company were arrested.

Ms. Chow has not been formally charged, and she was released on bail. People convicted under the security law could be jailed for life.

“Of the four times I’ve been arrested, this is the most terrifying,” she wrote shortly after her release.

Ms. Chow rose to prominence as a student activist in 2012 and as a protest leader during the Umbrella Movement of 2014, becoming one of the few female faces of Hong Kong’s youth-led pro-democracy movement at the time. Ms. Chow was recently charged in connection with an antigovernment protest outside Police Headquarters last year. But she has said she does not understand why she was arrested this week under the security law, which is not retroactive.

The large protests that erupted last year in Hong Kong had been crippled by the coronavirus pandemic even before China imposed the security law, which carries much harsher potential penalties for antigovernment street protests. So supports have relied in part on online platforms to shore up the movement and connect with others internationally.

Disney’s “Mulan,” for its part, has been at the center of an ideological divide in Hong Kong since last year.

Ms. Liu, the Chinese actress who plays Mulan in the movie, drew a backlash last August when she sided with the Hong Kong police against the protesters on the microblogging platform Weibo, where she had nearly 66 million followers at the time. The police have been accused of excessive force in dealing with the protests.

When Ms. Liu shared the quote “I support the Hong Kong police, you all can beat me up now,” adding a heart and a bicep emoji, the blowback was swift, with supporters of the protests calling for a boycott of “Mulan.” On Monday, after Ms. Chow’s arrest, some social media users revived the criticism of Ms. Liu.

“#LiuYifei is a selfish #CCP shill who supports #PoliceBrutality in #HongKong,” one viral tweet read. “#AgnesChow has given everything to #FightForFreedom and defend her people.” Referring to a slogan from the movie, it added, “So who is really loyal brave and true?”

Neither Ms. Liu nor Disney could be immediately reached for comment.

Unlike mainland China, Hong Kong has a tiny domestic market with limited commercial clout. But the city’s internet users have become a voice to be reckoned with, using savvy and aggressive online campaigns to raise awareness about the city’s political crisis.

The release date for “Mulan,” initially set for March, has been pushed back to September because of the pandemic. Disney says it has been approved for theatrical release in China.

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