Pro-democracy activists Agnes Chow, Ivan Lam and Joshua Wong speak to the media after arriving for their trial at West Kowloon Magistrates' Court in Hong Kong on Nov. 23 on unauthorized assembly charges in relation to protests in 2019. (Photo: AFP)
This week marks yet more nails in the coffin of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy, and yet more turning the screws on Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
The week began with the detention of three leading lights in Hong Kong’s movement — Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam — on charges of illegal assembly relating to last year’s anti-extradition law protests. Remanded in custody awaiting trial, rather than — as would previously have been the norm — being released on bail, the three face at least up to five years in prison.
Chow, aged 23 and a Catholic, already faces the possibility of a much longer prison sentence after being arrested in August under Hong Kong’s draconian new national security law. Charged with “colluding with foreign forces,” she could face up to a lifetime in jail.
That Wong is reportedly held in solitary confinement, confined to his cell and denied outside exercise, because a “strange object” was found in his stomach during an X-ray, is outrageous. Even more appalling is the news that he has to resort to using surgical masks intended to protect against Covid-19 as blindfolds in order to sleep because prison guards refuse to turn off or dim the bright lights in his cell at night. This could constitute sleep deprivation and a threat to health, both of which surely amount to ill-treatment.
The three activists’ detention came three days after 64-year-old campaigner Alexandra Wong was arrested, accused of assaulting a security guard last January.
Known as “Grandma Wong,” she has been a tireless solo protester against the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms, often seen waving a Union Jack. She only returned to Hong Kong last month after being held for 14 months in mainland China. During that time, she had been imprisoned for 45 days in an 18-square-meter cell with up to 26 other prisoners, subjected to interrogation every day. She was forced to make a confession, promise not to engage in any more demonstrations or talk to the media, renounce her activism in writing and declare on camera that she had not been tortured. “I was afraid I would die in that detention center,” she said.
Following her release from detention last year, Grandma Wong says she was taken on a five-day “patriotic education” tour of Shaanxi province in northeast China, required to sing the Chinese national anthem and stand before the Chinese flag. Finally, she was released on bail pending trial for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” — a common charge used against dissidents in China — and placed under house arrest.
Yet while her freedom seems short-lived, she is rightly being heralded around the world. The day after her arrest, a group of British parliamentarians from the All Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong nominated her for the Nobel Peace Prize. The group’s vice-chair, Catholic parliamentarian Lord Alton of Liverpool, said Grandma Wong was fearless and “embodies the bravery, determination and resilience of the Hong Kong protesters that have inspired the world.”
In contrast to the inspiring example of these courageous activists — young and old — Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam cut a depressing figure as she delivered her annual policy address. In contrast to past years, where she was met with protest, heckling and debate in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, this year she addressed a chamber filled only with pro-Beijing legislators. Beijing’s disqualification of four pro-democracy legislators, and the resignation of all other democrats in protest two weeks ago, has rendered the legislature nothing more than a pro-Beijing rubber-stamp puppet show, entirely subservient to the Chinese Communist Party’s wishes.
Yet instead of attempting to offer any small sign of hope, Lam praised Beijing’s notorious new national security law, saying it has been “remarkably effective” in restoring stability to the city, and celebrated the “highly trusted” police. Not a hint of remorse, not a flicker of self-doubt, not any acknowledgement that the police had done anything wrong — even though they have been accused by international observers, including United Nations experts, of serious brutality that violates human rights.
According to UN special rapporteurs, Hong Kong police have used tear gas, pepper spray and other chemicals in densely populated areas, near schools and kindergartens, “indiscriminately, unnecessarily and disproportionately, in violation of international and Hong Kong principles on the use of force.” They have harassed, arrested and abused medical professionals, and patrolled hospitals “in full riot gear, bearing shields, batons and firearms loaded with beanbag rounds and rubber bullets.” They have attacked journalists, beaten protesters and face accusations of sexual violence. Yet Lam has turned a blind eye, allowing what was once a highly respected police force to become the Chinese Communist Party’s thugs, unleashing terror with impunity.
Perhaps Lam’s most ludicrous claim in her policy address was a promise to restore Hong Kong’s constitutional order and political system. This is a sign of the Orwellian dystopia that Hong Kong has rapidly become, for the harsh truth is that Beijing has torn up Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, broken its promises under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty registered at the United Nations, and destroyed Hong Kong’s promised freedoms. She is not restoring anything; she is — on her puppet masters’ orders — replacing a vibrant, semi-democratic system with full-blown Chinese Communist Party control.
A letter to Carrie Lam
Just after Christmas last year, I wrote privately to Lam, who professes to be a Catholic, in recognition that however much I may disagree with her, she was, I thought, in a challenging position. I sent her a copy of my book, From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church, which I inscribed “To Carrie Lam, with my prayers for you and for Hong Kong and with love for Hong Kong.” I was not naive, I did not hold out great hope, but I did try to believe that perhaps it might help remind her of some Catholic values. In the accompanying letter, this is what I wrote:
“Dear Chief Executive,
"I am writing to you in a purely personal and private capacity, as a fellow Catholic, to say that you are very much in my prayers at this extremely difficult time for Hong Kong.
"I recognize what a difficult challenge you face and what a heavy burden is on your shoulders, and as someone who believes in the power of prayer, I am praying for you and for Hong Kong.
"I became a Catholic just over six years ago, in Myanmar, inspired and received into the faith by Myanmar’s courageous Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, who is also president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences. I was accompanied on my journey into the Church by many friends and heroes, and particularly by my sponsor Lord Alton of Liverpool. I have been inspired in my faith by Catholics whom I have had the privilege of knowing in different walks of life throughout the world, including the wonderful Cardinal Joseph Zen, Martin Lee, Jimmy Lai and Anson Chan in Hong Kong.
"When I became a Catholic I was urged by several friends who had accompanied me on the journey to write a book. As I state in the introduction, I was initially extremely reluctant to do so because I did not want to write a book about myself. But the more I thought and prayed about it, the more I realized that the stories of human beings on the path of faith are interwoven in a beautiful, rich tapestry, and so I agreed to write my story, interwoven into a book that is primarily focused on the stories of those who inspired me along the way.
"At this challenging time for Hong Kong, I thought that you might derive some inspiration, comfort and interest from the stories told in my book, From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church, which I enclose. I send it as a very genuine token of prayer at this critical time.
"If you ever feel there is anything I could do constructively in some small way to help encourage reconciliation in Hong Kong, I stand ready to serve. My only desire is the peace, freedom, human dignity and well-being of Hong Kongers. Everything I try to do is based on the principle of the innate dignity and value of every human being made in the image of God — Imago Dei — the heartbeat of Catholic teaching.
"With prayers, for you and for Hong Kong.”
She returned the book and the letter, her private secretary explaining that “to uphold the principles of simplicity and economy, the chief executive is not able to accept the book as a gift … The book is therefore returned as enclosed … Should you wish to recommend any publication to the chief executive for her reading in future, please advise us the names of the publications you wish to recommend so that we may consider procuring the publications as appropriate.”
A year on, I do wish to recommend to Lam three publications — the Holy Bible, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church — but the original versions, not Beijing’s new retranslations.
From everything that she has done over the past two years, there is nothing that is consistent with Catholic values, morals, ethics, conscience or social teaching — nothing that upholds human dignity, liberty, rights, justice, peace or subsidiarity. Indeed, there is so much that directly contravenes the Church’s teachings.
It is never possible to serve two masters, and Lam has made her choice clear — to serve her masters in Beijing instead of God or the people. As I wrote a year ago on this site, Lam has blood on her hands — a lot more of it now — and the destruction of an entire city’s way of life. The hope for Hong Kong now sits in jail or in exile.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW, co-founder and deputy chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC). The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.