Updated: February 06, 2023 11:34 AM GMT
Members of the League of Social Democrats are surrounded by police as they carry a banner outside a court in Hong Kong on Feb. 6 as the trial of 47 of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy figures begins in the largest prosecution under a national security law that has crushed dissent in the city. (Photo: AFP)
The nomination of six prominent Hong Kong human rights defenders for the Nobel Peace Prize last week was much-needed and rare good news.
The decision by a bipartisan United States Congressional committee chaired by Republican Congressman Chris Smith — a devout Catholic — and co-chaired by Democrat Senator Jeff Merkley to recommend Cardinal Joseph Zen and Catholic pro-democracy publisher and entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, along with student activist Joshua Wong, trade unionist Lee Cheuk-yan, lawyer Chow Hang-tung and journalist Gwyneth Ho for the prize at least sends the signal that Hong Kong is not forgotten.
The choice of these six individuals symbolizes the breadth of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, from religious leaders to the media, trade unions, law and civil society, and is a recognition of their inspiring courage.
But today, another grim chapter in the story of Beijing’s repression of Hong Kong opens as the trial of 47 former elected legislators, activists, academics and journalists begins. It is the largest single trial under Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law since it was imposed by Beijing in July 2020 and it’s most symbolic. It is a barometer of the severity of the crackdown on Hong Kong’s basic freedoms and autonomy and the dismantling of the rule of law and judicial independence.
What are the 47 accused of? Conspiracy to commit subversion. How? By holding a primary election to choose the pro-democracy camp’s candidates for election to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Their “crime” was nothing more than normal for any opposition party or alliance to do in any democracy.
Granted, the primary election was held just ten days after the imposition of the National Security Law, and the organizers were warned that their action could be in violation of the new law. And it is true that the poll was unofficial. Nevertheless, more than 600,000 Hong Kong residents cast their ballots to select candidates to run in the Legislative Council elections scheduled for September 2020.
"All they were demanding was the implementation of what had already been promised, in the Sino-British Joint Declaration"
As it was, those Legislative Council elections were then postponed, with Covid-19 as the excuse, the rules rewritten and the pro-democracy camp entirely excluded from contesting them. A new legislature was chosen in a sham election or ‘selection’ in December 2021 and is nothing but a puppet rubber-stamps body run by the Chinese Communist Party and its quislings.
Yet still, the 47 are accused of threatening China’s national security. It is not as if they are guilty of extreme, radical action. They did not engage in or advocate violence, endorse calls for independence, or participate in rioting. While they are passionate and courageous advocates for democracy, all they were demanding was the implementation of what had already been promised, in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty registered at the United Nations, and in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution — the protection of Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, rule of law and autonomy, and universal suffrage.
Among the 47 are some of the most prominent, internationally respected and moderate voices in Hong Kong’s politics who come from educated, professional backgrounds. They include former Cathay Pacific airline pilot Jeremy Tam, former university lecturer Helena Wong, the mild-mannered barrister Alvin Yeung, environmentalist Eddie Chu, former district councilor Clarisse Yeung, former nurse and founder of a health workers union Winnie Yu, and journalists Gwyneth Ho, among those nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and Claudia Mo, who is married to British foreign correspondent Philip Bowring, a renowned contributor to major international newspapers.
And even those regarded as more ‘radical,’ such as the legal scholar Benny Tai and student leader Joshua Wong were never advocates of violence or independence. They organized and led protests and civil disobedience campaigns, engaged in international advocacy and spoke to the media, and helped mobilize Hong Kongers in political action, but always peacefully. Both are devout Christians, and Tai — who played a key role in organizing the primary elections — had earlier helped lead the 2014 protest movement which began with a call to “Occupy Central with Love and Peace.”
Most of the 47 have already spent over two years in jail, awaiting trial. On Jan. 6, 2021, 55 individuals were arrested, and on Feb. 28 that same year, 47 of them were charged with conspiracy to subversion. Only a handful were granted bail, though their passports were confiscated. In itself, this is a grave injustice and reveals how compromised Hong Kong’s courts have become.
The international community, the world’s media and the Church each have a responsibility to ensure that the spotlight is on this trial and does not go away.
Diplomats from as many countries as possible should attend the trial, to monitor proceedings, let the accused know that they are not forgotten and ensure that every injustice throughout the case is exposed.
Among the 47, many are either past or current holders of foreign passports, whether British National Overseas (BNO) status or full British or other citizenship. The countries which issued those passports have a responsibility to pay particular attention to their trials and do everything possible to protect their rights, prevent mistreatment, and offer a lifeline to freedom abroad once they are released.
"If they can do that to elected lawmakers, think what the chilling effect will be for what little remains of civil society"
The world’s media must cover this trial from start to finish, and ensure that the eyes of the world remain on the 47 throughout.
And the Church has a responsibility to pray. Pray for strength for the 47, pray for their families, pray for their lawyers, pray that they would not suffer mistreatment, abuse, or torture, and pray for leniency in sentencing and for their swift release.
Of course, they should not be on trial at all, and they should be acquitted and freed, but realistically, without a divine miracle, we can already predict the verdict.
The Hong Kong government and their masters in Beijing are determined to make an example of them. By jailing elected legislators, they are sending a message to everyone: look what we will do if you step out of line.
If they can do that to elected lawmakers, think what the chilling effect will be for what little remains of civil society, independent journalism, academic freedom, religious freedom, or basic freedom of expression. The only thing in question is how long they will be behind bars. Pray that it will not be as long as we fear.
As the 47 spent last week preparing to appear in court, Hong Kong’s chief executive John Lee unveiled a new campaign to attract tourism to Hong Kong. In what could be described as a sick joke, he launched the “Hello Hong Kong” campaign, offering 500,000 free air tickets to the city. Visitors, he promised, would have “new experiences.”
As someone who has been denied entry to Hong Kong, threatened by its police force with jail under the National Security Law’s extraterritoriality clause, even though I live in London, and have seen many of my friends jailed, I do not think the “new experiences” promised are ones I would want to try or recommend to others.
Hong Kong has transformed rapidly and dramatically from one of Asia’s most open cities — “Asia’s world city” as its marketing slogan claims — into one of its most repressive police states.
That status is epitomized by the fact that its leader, Mr. Lee, has almost no experience in government other than policing. He spent his entire career either as a frontline police officer or in senior positions in the security bureau, culminating in his period as Secretary for Security. His only experience is of arresting people and locking them up.
The trial and imprisonment of 47 legislators and pro-democracy advocates is another sign of Hong Kong’s transformation into a police state. Watch it closely.
*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.