3 Hong Kong pro-democracy icons were sentenced to prison in huge blow to protest movement

Three prominent democracy advocates in Hong Kong were sentenced to jail on Wednesday for their role in a protest during massive protests against an extradition bill in the summer of 2019. This is another worrying sign of the erosion of Hong Kong freedoms.

Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam – all members in their twenties pro-democracy group now dissolved known as Demosisto – all of them pleaded guilty to charges related to participating in and inciting others to join an unauthorized but largely peaceful protest outside the Hong Kong Police Headquarters in Wanchai in June 2019. All could potentially face sentences of up to three years, but Wong will serve 13.5 months in prison, Chow faces a 10-month sentence, and Lam was sentenced to seven months.

Wong and Chow were first arrested on these charges in August 2019, and Lam in september 2019 – but many Hong Kong observers see this as part of the broader crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms that escalated after the Chinese government implemented a sweeping national security law in July. This law gives authorities broad powers to target dissidents or anyone who defies Beijing, making things like demonstrating or taking any anti-government position potentially seditious or terrorist activity.

Wong faces additional charges, including participating in another unauthorized protest in October 2019 and violating the Hong Kong government’s mask ban, which banned people from wearing masks during mass rallies , months before the coronavirus pandemic. would make wearing a mask compulsory. He was also indicted along with dozens of other activists for participating in an illegal gathering, a vigil on June 4 to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Chow was also arrested in August under the National Security Act, allegedly for “collusion with foreign forces. ” She could potentially face life in prison if he is charged and convicted.

Although the activists’ legal woes stem from the recent upheaval in Hong Kong, they were also 2014 Hong Kong Umbrella Movement, who challenged proposed changes to Hong Kong’s electoral rules. The movement failed to achieve its goal of giving Hong Kong people universal suffrage, but it became the forerunner of mass anti-government protests last summer and fall.

These started as a protest against a controversial extradition bill and evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement that engulfed Hong Kong for months before. arrests and pandemic restrictions and, finally, the National Security Law has helped quell resistance on the streets.

But the 2019 protests in Hong Kong were largely leaderless. People have organized themselves on social media and online, keeping their anonymity tightly for fear of reprisal. The fluidity of the protests made it difficult for the Hong Kong authorities to reduce or weaken them, so they opted for the second best thing: well-known pro-democracy figures who had publicly rallied to the cause, even though they were not themselves. on the front lines of organizing events. Wong himself recognized last year, saying last August that it was “utterly ridiculous” for the police to target “specific figures of the social movement in the past and frame them as the leaders of the protests against the extradition bill.”

Hong Kong freedoms deteriorate in real time

The condemnation of these pro-democracy figures is only the latest degradation of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy.

Hong Kong is supposed to be governed under the “one country, two systems” rule. The “one country” part means that it is officially part of China, while the “two systems” part gives it some autonomy, including rights like freedom of the press that are absent in mainland China. China is supposed to stick to the deal until 2047, but for years it has been eroding those freedoms and trying to bring Hong Kong more closely under its control.

The National Security Law accelerated this process, destroying the “one country, two systems” facade. This directly threatened Hong Kong civil society, the independent press and, obviously, the territory’s sustained pro-democracy movement.

Wong faces additional charges, just like Chow, under the new National Security Law. This is Wong’s fourth time in prison, and he was already disqualified to run in Hong Kong local elections last year. He appeared in police custody before sentencing and was placed in solitary confinement after a scan reportedly showed a “Foreign object” in his stomach. Wong said he had trouble sleeping because the lights were on for 24 hours.

“It is now the plan of the Chinese Communist Party, I think, to start indefinite detention for them by giving them new charges over and over again,” Eddie Chu, a former pro-democracy lawmaker who was stopped in November on charges related to a brawl with pro-Beijing lawmakers last year, the Washington Post says.

Nathan Law, a pro-democracy figure from Hong Kong who fled to the UK, said the same in a New York Times op-ed, he co-wrote with Alex Chow, another activist. They said that despite the relatively short sentences, those sentenced “might not be out for a bit longer than that: the Chinese government, acting through the Hong Kong authorities, has already laid more charges. And its goal, after all, is to eradicate dissent in Hong Kong.

And, as Law and Chow have pointed out, the “A much tougher national security law” looms. The expansive law quickly cooled the rhetoric in Hong Kong. Journalists and Hong Kong people purged their stories on social media this summer, in case past statements could make them targets of the new law. Pro-democracy books have been removed from library shelves in July, including some written by Wong. In August, Hong Kong authorities asked publishers to remove “Sensitive content” manuals.

Activists and opposition figures have been arrested throughout the summer and fall, some for allegedly advocating for Hong Kong independence, illegal “secessionist” activity under the National Security Act. In August, 12 activists tried to flee to Taiwan by speedboat, including some who were reportedly indicted under the National Security Law, but they were intercepted by Chinese authorities.

In July, a dozen pro-democracy candidates banned from participating in legislative council elections. Those elections were scheduled for September – until Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive Carrie Lam postponed them for a year, citing the coronavirus. (Which, despite a recent spike, has been largely under control in Hong Kong for months.) In November, the Chinese passed another law that disqualified lawmakers “unpatriotic” behaviour; a handful of pro-democracy lawmakers were quickly expelled. The rest of the pro-democracy lawmakers have resigned en masse from the pro-Beijing body. And if these Legislative Council elections take place next year, Mainland Hong Kong people likely to be allowed to vote, ensuring the domination of pro-Chinese forces.

The press, too, took a hit. Jimmy Lai, Founder and Owner of Next Digital, which publishes Apple Daily, a Hong Kong publication that supported pro-democracy protests, was arrested in August under the National Security Act on allegations of collusion with foreign powers. And just as pro-democracy activists were sentenced on Wednesday, Lai was arrested on additional fraud fees, as well as two other executives from Next Digital. And this week, 40 staff members of the Hong Kong network, i-Cable News, were abruptly fired. Many were from his award-winning investigative unit; other journalists resigned out of solidarity. A former employee told Radio Free Asia the layoffs were “Shot in the head” of information gathering operations at i-Cable News.

All of this has placed Hong Kong in a particularly perilous situation. Resistance still exists, but public protests or dissent carry enormous risks. “This is not the end of the fight, read Wong’s Twitter account Wednesday, posted via his lawyers. “Ahead of us lies another difficult battlefield. We now join the battle in prison with many courageous protesters, less visible but essential in the struggle for democracy and freedom for Hong Kong.

Law and Chow, in their op-ed, called on the new Biden administration to keep its criticism of China, but also “Foster a new Chinese policy that prioritizes human rights over other interests.” The Trump administration revoked Hong Kong’s special trade status and imposed sanctions on officials linked to the anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong – including Lam, the managing director, who recently complained about having to accumulate money because she can no longer access the banks. But so far it has failed to deter Beijing, which has only stepped up its campaign to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.