From protester to prisoner: How Hong Kong is stifling dissent

The New York Times
Hong KongWritten By: Jennifer Jett, Austin Ramzy © 2021 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: May 29, 2021, 03:57 PM IST

Hong Kong pro-democracy activists stand trial. Photograph:(Reuters)

Story highlights

Activists, academics and others are increasingly wary of speaking to the foreign news media in Hong Kong, where press freedom is enshrined in the local constitution but under growing threat

Ten pro-democracy activists were sentenced in Hong Kong on Friday to prison terms ranging from 14 months to 18 months over a 2019 protest, the latest in a series of tough punishments that have put much of the Chinese territory’s opposition camp behind bars, with many more awaiting trial.

All of them pleaded guilty this month to organising the protest, which had been banned by the police and took place Oct. 1, China’s National Day. As they led a march on Hong Kong Island, clashes broke out across the city in some of the worst protest violence that year.

Some of those sentenced Friday, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai, labor leader Lee Cheuk-yan and activist Leung Kwok-hung, who is better known as Long Hair, had already been imprisoned after earlier protest convictions. Two of the sentences, given to politicians Sin Chung-kai and Richard Tsoi, were suspended for two years.

Fernando Cheung, a pro-democracy former lawmaker, said Friday that “such severe punishments” sent a message of deterrence to the people of Hong Kong days before an annual June 4 vigil to honour the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. On Thursday, Hong Kong police blocked the event for the second year in a row, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

Also Friday, Hong Kong’s High Court issued an explanation for why it had denied bail to Claudia Mo, a moderate former lawmaker who is among 47 pro-democracy activists charged under a draconian new national security law. Judge Esther Toh cited, among other reasons, “accusations of desperation and loss of human rights and freedom” that Mo had made in interviews and WhatsApp conversations with journalists from international news organizations, including The New York Times.

Activists, academics and others are increasingly wary of speaking to the foreign news media in Hong Kong, where press freedom is enshrined in the local constitution but under growing threat.

The array of cases against Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists is part of a broad campaign by the Chinese government to subdue political opposition and constrain the dissent that fuelled vast street protests in 2019.

Authorities have been aided in their crackdown by both the security law and more assertive use of what was already on the books.

What is the national security law?

The security law, which Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020, targets terrorism, subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces. Its sweeping language, much of which has yet to be tested in courts, gives the authorities new powers to block websites, freeze assets, carry out searches without warrants, dispense with jury trials and hold defendants without bail.

It also allows for defendants in some cases to be tried under mainland law in courts controlled by the ruling Communist Party.

The law has prompted people to seek asylum in Australia, Canada, the United States and elsewhere, and raised fears for the future of Hong Kong’s schools, judicial system and even artistic expression.

Who has been arrested?

More than 10,200 people have been arrested in connection with the anti-government protests, the Hong Kong Department of Justice said in April. Of those, more than 2,500 have been prosecuted and more than 600 convicted on charges including unlawful assembly, arson, rioting, possession of offensive weapons, assaulting a police officer and desecrating the Chinese national flag.

Separately, more than 100 people have been arrested under the security law or by the local police unit that was set up last summer to enforce it. Of those, 57 have been charged, John Lee, the security secretary, said last week.

Along with thousands of ordinary citizens as young as 12, the arrests have swept up some of the city’s most prominent pro-democracy figures, including young activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, Lai, 73, and Martin Lee, 82, a former lawmaker who is known as Hong Kong’s “father of democracy.”

But they have also extended all the way down to district councillors, elected officials who handle neighbourhood-level issues like garbage collection. The District Councils, which have been dominated by the opposition since a landslide election victory in November 2019, are seen as the last formal foothold of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement after all of its supporters in the legislature resigned in protest late last year.

How are the national security cases different?

National security charges can carry life sentences, depending on how serious the courts find the cases to be. The high threshold for bail means that most of those who have been charged are likely to spend months if not years in jail before they go to trial.

The largest set of national security arrests took place in January, when 55 pro-democracy politicians and activists were detained, many in early-morning raids. They had organised or participated in an informal primary election in July in which more than 600,000 people chose pro-democracy candidates to run in the city’s legislative election two months later. That election was postponed by the Hong Kong government soon after the primary and is now scheduled for Dec. 19, by which time new electoral restrictions will be in place.

Of the 55 people arrested, 47 were formally charged in February with conspiracy to commit subversion, a violation of the security law. Prosecutors said the pro-democracy bloc planned to win a majority in the legislature and then “indiscriminately” veto the government budget as a way to force Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, to resign. Thirty-six of the 47 defendants were denied bail in four days of marathon hearings during which several were hospitalised with exhaustion.

Those charged cover a wide political spectrum, from Leung, an avowed radical, to moderate democrats like barrister Alvin Yeung. Their unifying belief was a desire for universal suffrage in a city where democracy has long been hobbled.

Other national security arrests have included four young activists who were former members of a pro-independence group; Lai, his two sons and several employees of his company, Next Digital; and 11 people suspected of aiding a group of activists who tried to flee to Taiwan by boat last year while facing charges related to the 2019 protests.

Here are some of the cases to watch.

Lai, who was sentenced to 14 months Friday over the Oct. 1 protest, bringing his total prison term to 20 months, still faces additional cases including fraud, aiding an escape attempt and national security charges of collusion with foreign forces. He is also one of 24 activists charged with taking part last year in the banned Tiananmen vigil. Four of the activists charged, including Wong, were sentenced this month to between four and 10 months in prison.

Nine of the 12 activists who tried to escape to Taiwan have been charged in Hong Kong with “perverting the course of justice.” They were detained in mainland China for months after being caught at sea by authorities. Depending on which court they are tried in, they could face up to life imprisonment if convicted.

Trials under the security law are set to begin June 23 with Tong Ying-kit, 24, who prosecutors say collided with police officers while riding a motorcycle with a Hong Kong liberation flag on the back. He was among 10 protesters arrested on suspicion of violating the security law on July 1, the first day it was in effect and the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return from British to Chinese rule in 1997. Tong, who has been in custody since shortly after his arrest, is accused of terrorism and inciting secession. His bid for a jury trial was rejected.

How has the rest of the world responded?

The United States, Britain and other nations have criticised the security law and China’s growing clampdown on Hong Kong. Some countries have dropped extradition agreements with Hong Kong and made it easier for people from the city to emigrate or seek asylum. The United States has also imposed sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials who have led the crackdown.

The Chinese government has rejected criticism of its policies in Hong Kong, framing it as interference in its internal affairs and a tool to increase pressure at a time of growing tension between China and the West.