Hong Kong is fast running out of avenues for dissent

Three high-profile democracy activists were jailed Wednesday, others have already fled the city, while still more face prosecution. Their cases involve a host of charges, both serious and petty, with one of those jailed this week, Agnes Chow, convicted in large part for shouting slogans through a megaphone.
The city’s parliament no longer has any pro-democratic members, while the media and judiciary are coming under increasing pressure. Protests, once a symbol of Hong Kong, have been stifled by a new national security law and sporadically-applied coronavirus restrictions.
Invisible red lines are spreading out through a host of fields, with journalists facing arrest for accessing public records, or legislators accused of colluding with foreign powers for attending certain meetings.

All the while, as members of the opposition are picked off one-by-one, the likelihood of them being replaced by new blood is shrinking, as the spaces for cultivating new talent shrink and the cost of getting involved in politics rises ever higher.

Chow, 24, was convicted Wednesday alongside Joshua Wong and Ivan Lam. All three are former student protesters and members of the now-disbanded political party Demosisto, icons of the youth-led movement behind both the 2014 Umbrella protests and the unrest that gripped the Chinese city last year.

It was the first time Chow has been jailed, and she sobbed as the sentence was read out. Both Lam and Wong have been to prison before, and dragged before court even more often.

A day later, another iconic opposition figure, Jimmy Lai — the septuagenarian founder of pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily — was denied bail after an initial hearing into a fraud case. He will remain behind bars until the next trial date in April.

In denying bail, the judge deemed the multimillionaire to be a flight risk, though Lai previously vowed to stay in the city and fight, despite facing growing pressure related to his activism.

A new reality

In the past, yesterday’s sentences might have raised questions over the high-profile trio’s political prospects: under Hong Kong law, any prison term greater than three months results in a five-year ban on standing for office.

But this is a moot point in 2020. Wong and Chow have both already been barred from standing in previous elections, and though Chow’s ban was overturned on a technicality, it is almost certain that she would have been blocked in the future.
Hong Kong’s next parliamentary election appears likely not to feature a real opposition, matching the current situation in the legislature, where pro-democracy members resigned en masse last month, in protest at the Beijing government intervening to eject several moderate lawmakers.
In her annual policy address last week, Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed to “restore Hong Kong’s constitutional order” and build a “harmonious and stable social environment.”
Since the protests last year — sparked by a proposed extradition law with China — Beijing has intervened heavily in Hong Kong’s supposedly autonomous affairs. A national security law, imposed by Beijing, has been used to drastically reshape politics in the city, forcing parties to disband, providing justification to bar candidates, and arrest “secessionist” figures.

The law, along with broadly applied coronavirus gathering restrictions, has effectively stifled the protest movement: Hong Kong has not seen anything like the level of demonstrations that rocked the city throughout 2019. The election bans, expulsions from the legislature, and finally the mass resignation of lawmakers have fully curtailed a body that was already struggling to provide any real check on government.

Now the authorities appear poised to take out leaders of the opposition one by one. Dozens of former lawmakers and prominent activists are facing charges related to last year’s unrest, along with hundreds of mostly young protesters, while others have the threat of the national security law hanging over them.
Outside of politics directly, the media has also felt the squeeze. The city’s leading pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, was raided earlier this year, and owner Jimmy Lai has faced multiple prosecutions. A producer for public broadcaster RTHK was arrested for her work examining the police, while this week more than two-dozen reporters quit in protest at cuts made by i-Cable, a private broadcaster with a reputation for investigative reportping.
Schools, judges and civil servants have all come under increasing pressure and scrutiny, with the government planning for new loyalty oaths and an educational curriculum more in line with the “patriotic” courses taught in China.
“Nowadays there is no viable political path, no matter whether you are peaceful, violent, or even pro-establishment,” James To, one of the most senior lawmakers in the now-disbanded pro-democracy caucus, said last week. “This is because China wants to abolish ‘one country, two systems.’ They see no problem with Hong Kong becoming the same as Guangzhou.”

No breeding ground for opposition

The moves by Beijing this year threaten not only to curtail existing opposition, but prevent future figures from coming forward or gaining any support.

Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong did not come out of nowhere. Both started as teenage activists, taking part in, and later leading, street protests and mass demonstrations, before moving more directly into politics.

This helped make them international icons, but also a target for prosecution — and already last year, the movement had switched to a more fluid, leaderless system, in part to avoid having organizers easily picked off.

While some figures did emerge from the 2019 unrest, with the legislature apparently cut off as an avenue for dissent, they lose both a vital source of funding and a platform for greater influence and prominence, both in Hong Kong and abroad.

Writing this week, Raymond Li, a pro-democracy district councilor, said that what the government fears is not elected lawmakers’ powers, which are very limited, “but public recognition and their ability to shape public opinion.”

“What worries the CCP is not the veto Joshua Wong has if he is elected as a LegCo member but his ability to speak to the international community in the capacity of a LegCo member,” Li said. “The CCP worries that people give us the mandate which we will use to unite more people and strengthen the force of resistance.”

In a New York Times op-ed Wednesday, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, two former leaders of the 2014 protests who have since gone into exile, called on Washington to maintain a firm line on Hong Kong.

“The incoming Biden administration must not only remain critical of the (Chinese Communist) regime but also have the courage to foster a new China policy that prioritizes human rights over other interests,” they wrote. “Hong Kong is at the front lines of the resistance against Beijing’s authoritarianism; what happens there should matter to anyone anywhere who cares about the future of freedom.”

But Law and Chow only have such a platform because of their previous work in Hong Kong itself. Unknown protesters are unlikely to get such treatment — and even sympathetic foreign governments and politicians will be cautious of meeting with those who cannot show evidence of any real constituency.

Speaking to CNN during last year’s protests, a senior Hong Kong government adviser said they had “lost two generations,” — those which produced Wong and subsequent young opposition figures.

By moving hard against them now, Beijing may hope that it not only stifles their ability to speak out, but prevents anyone coming forward to replace them.

CNN’s Eric Cheung and Jadyn Sham contributed reporting.

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Pro-democracy Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai denied bail after being charged with fraud

Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai was remanded into custody on Thursday after being charged with fraud, the latest in a string of prosecutions brought against high-profile Beijing critics and democracy campaigners.

Mr Lai, 73, is the owner of Hong Kong’s best-selling Apple Daily, a popular tabloid that is unashamedly pro-democracy and fiercely critical of authorities.

He and two of the firm’s executives – Royston Chow and Wong Wai-keung – face fraud charges that court documents say are related to the paper’s offices allegedly being used for purposes not permitted by the building’s lease. 

Police raided Apple Daily’s headquarters in August and arrested a string of senior company figures, including Mr Lai, on suspicion of “collusion with foreign forces” under a vaguely worded new national security law that Beijing imposed on the city.

None has so far been charged with any national security breaches.

But Victor So, the magistrate overseeing Thursday’s hearing, is from a group of judges selected by Hong Kong’s chief executive to try such cases.

Mr So denied Mr Lai bail but granted it to Mr Wong and Mr Chow, setting the next court date for April. 

The decision means Mr Lai, who was later photographed arriving at prison with his hands cuffed, faces months behind bars as police continue their investigation. 

China’s clampdown on Hong Kong has dramatically accelerated since it imposed its sweeping security law in June, with opposition politicians disqualified and dozens of activists charged or investigated.

On Wednesday, three prominent young democracy campaigners – including Joshua Wong – were jailed for taking part in last year’s democracy protests.

Mr Lai is also being prosecuted for his alleged part in those rallies in a separate prosecution.

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Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai charged with fraud

The move comes a day after a court sentenced prominent democracy activist Joshua Wong to more than 13 months in prison over an unlawful anti-government rally in 2019, the toughest sentence for an opposition figure this year.

Jailed: Hong Kong activists, from right, Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam and Agnes Chow.Credit:AP

They also jailed Wong’s colleagues Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam for 10 and seven months, respectively. Chow speaks fluent Japanese and is well-known in Japan, prompting the Japanese government to speak out against the sentencing.

“Japan increasingly has grave concerns about the recent Hong Kong situation such as sentences against three including Agnes Chow,” chief government spokesman Katsunobu told a regular news conference on Thursday.

“We have conveyed our concerns to China about Hong Kong at various opportunities,” he said.

Beijing responded to 15 months of protests in Hong Kong by imposing a sweeping national security law to crack down on dissent, which prompted more public opposition.


The crackdown has prompted accusations Beijing is violating the autonomy it promised when the former British colony was returned to China in 1997. It also has triggered warnings the ruling Communist Party is damaging Hong Kong’s appeal as a global business centre and one of Asia’s most dynamic cities.

Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten criticised the activist’s sentencing, saying in a statement that it was “another grim example of China’s determination to put Hong Kong in handcuffs”.

Claudia Mo, a former HK pro-democracy legislator, called the sentences “very saddening, but not unexpected.”

“All these judicial prosecutions amount to persecution of our young,” The New York Times quoted her as saying. “They’re using Joshua Wong as an iconic figure in particular to issue this chilling message.”

AP, Reuters

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Hong Kong protest leader Joshua Wong sentenced to jail on two charges

About 100 supporters gathered quietly inside the court ahead of the sentence, while a small group of pro-Beijing people rallied outside, calling for a hefty prison sentence.

“I know the coming days will be tougher. We will hang in there,” Wong, wearing a black jumper and surgical face mask, shouted after the sentence was read out.

“It’s not the end of the fight,” Wong said later through his lawyers.

“Ahead of us is another challenging battleground. We’re now joining the battle in prison along with many brave protesters, less visible yet essential in the fight for democracy and freedom for Hong Kong.”

Wong’s long-time colleagues Agnes Chow, 23, and Ivan Lam, 26, were jailed for a total of 10 and seven months, respectively, on charges linked to the same siege when thousands of protesters surrounded the police headquarters on June 21 to demand the government withdraw a now-shelved extradition bill.

Chow, who cried inside the court room on hearing her sentence, had pleaded guilty to incitement and participation in an unlawful protest, while Lam pleaded guilty to incitement.

A familiar face at democracy protests since he was a teenager, Wong was less than a year old when Hong Kong returned to Beijing 23 years ago with a guarantee of freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including freedom of speech and assembly.

China’s imposition of a national security law on Hong Kong on June 30 was seen as the latest blow to the city’s liberties, which are crucial for its status as a global financial hub.

Supporters wave mobile phone lights as a Correctional Services bus leaves court following the sentencing of Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam.Credit:Getty Images

‘Keep the faith’

Ahead of sentencing, the district court judge read a letter from Wong’s mother to the court in which she said her son was “a young person who cares about society and is persistent in his ideals”.

Under the handover agreement in 1997, Beijing promised to maintain the free-wheeling city’s way of life for 50 years under a “one country, two systems” formula, although some fear 2047 is arriving early as authorities tighten their grip.

US Senator Marsha Blackburn accused China of cracking down on human rights and destroying “any semblance of autonomy in Hong Kong”.

“Keep the faith, Joshua, you are truly an inspiration to freedom fighters everywhere,” Blackburn said in a statement.

Rights groups were swift to condemn the court ruling.

“By targeting well-known activists from Hong Kong’s largely leaderless protest movement, authorities are sending a warning to anyone who dares openly criticise the government that they could be next,” said Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra.

Wong, Chow and Lam are all former members of political group Demosisto, which was disbanded hours before Beijing imposed the security law amid fears it could be targeted.

Hong Kong activist Sunny Cheung said Wong’s sentencing would leave a hole in the democracy movement’s fight to be heard.

“This is a big loss to the civil society. It also denotes a fact that Hong Kong is now entering a new stage if not a dark time which requires strategic adjustment in order to continue the fight for democracy,” Cheung said.

In recent months, the Hong Kong government has expelled opposition politicians from the legislature, disqualified pro-democracy candidates from running in a now-postponed election and arrested more than 30 people under the security legislation.

The expulsion of opposition politicians prompted democrats to resign en masse, leaving the legislature devoid of any opposition democrats for the first time since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule.


Hundreds of Hong Kong activists have fled through legal or illegal channels to the democratic island of Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a renegade province that should be brought back under its sovereignty, by force if necessary.

Taiwan’s ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) expressed grave concerns over the sentencing.

“The DPP emphasises that what the Chinese Communists and the Hong Kong government have done today is equivalent of declaring that Hong Kong’s freedom is dead,” it said in a statement.


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Hong Kong protester gets 21 months in prison for throwing eggs as city’s judiciary comes under pressure to take hard line

In handing down her sentence Thursday, Magistrate Winnie Lau said that while “an egg is not a weapon of mass destruction,” the throwing of such items at a police station provoked “discontent” with the force, undermined officers’ law enforcement actions, and endangered society, according to public broadcaster RTHK.
The large number of prosecutions, as well as pressure for tough sentences, has put judges in a delicate position, particularly as Beijing has tightened its grip on the semi-autonomous city this year. In July, Chinese authorities introduced a national security law for Hong Kong, bypassing the city’s legislature to criminalize secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces.
Judges seen as overly lenient or sympathetic toward protesters have come in for criticism from Chinese state media and pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong. Writing in the state-run China Daily in September, one commentator said that “in theory, judges must not take political sides in a court of law, but in Hong Kong many members of the public now see some judges as ‘yellow judges’ who practice political favoritism for offenders from the opposition camp.”
In a statement this week, the Hong Kong Bar Association said it “deplores irrational and unrestrained attacks on the Judiciary and members of the Judiciary” and urged media to stop speculating on the political beliefs of judges.
Some judges have also come under fire for showing alleged bias against protesters. In May, Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma removed District Court judge Kwok Wai-kin from protest cases after he described a man who had stabbed three people at a pro-democracy “Lennon wall” as a “victim” whose livelihood had been affected by people “behaving like terrorists.”

“Judges have a responsibility under the Basic Law, owed to the community, to exercise independent judicial power by adjudicating on cases fairly and impartially, without fear or favour,” Ma said in a statement.

Hong Kong has long prized its independent judiciary and rule of law, characteristics which set the city apart from mainland China, where courts are subject to the whims of the ruling Communist Party, and some 99% of cases end in a guilty verdict.

This independence has become all the more important as political dissent has been increasingly curtailed by the new security law. Last week, the entirety of the democratic opposition resigned from the city’s legislature after authorities in Beijing moved to expel several lawmakers.
Meanwhile, RTHK reported Thursday that the Hong Kong government would soon require all civil servants to swear an oath of allegiance.
And there are signs Hong Kong may be moving toward a more-politicized judicial system too. Since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, during which large numbers of mostly young people came out in support of increased political representation, the government has been accused of waging “lawfare” on activists and protesters, bringing large numbers of prosecutions and demanding tough penalties. The Beijing government has also intervened in several cases in recent years, exercising a previously rarely-used constitutional power to rewrite the city’s laws.
Earlier this month, Zhang Xiaoming, one of the top Chinese officials in Hong Kong, said that “reforms” were needed for the city’s judiciary, and that “the word ‘patriotism’ should be added before the core values ​​of democracy, freedom and human rights advocated by Hong Kong society.”

“We must defend the city’s rule of law, but we must also safeguard the national constitutional order,” Zhang said, adding that many “problems” had been exposed in the city’s de facto constitution that needed to be addressed.

Speaking during her annual policy address on Wednesday, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the national security law was already having the desired effect.

The law had been “remarkably effective in restoring stability in Hong Kong,” she said, and had brought an end to protests.

Lam added that the city’s Department of Justice “will continue to showcase that Hong Kong remains a neutral and effective international legal hub”, but also announced a new bill that will allow local courts to “deal” with lawmakers who might break the oath-taking process when being sworn in as legislators.

The national security law has already greatly altered the judicial system, creating specialized courts for hearing sensitive cases and allowing for some defendants to be transferred to the mainland for trial.

In September, a veteran Australian judge resigned from the city’s Court of Final Appeal. James Spigelman, who did not respond to a request for comment, told Australia’s public broadcaster ABC at the time that his decision was “related to the content of the national security legislation.”

Many distinguished foreign jurists sit on the CFA as non-permanent judges, bringing both legal expertise and a sheen of independence to the court, long seen as the final bulwark against pressure from Beijing.

That may shift as a result of the law, however. Chinese officials previously expressed skepticism about whether foreign judges could be trusted to hear national security cases, while in a report this month, British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said he had begun consultations on whether it was appropriate for UK judges to continue to serve on the court.

“Hong Kong’s independent judiciary is a cornerstone of its economic success and way of life,” Raab wrote. “The National Security Law provides that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, rather than the Chief Justice, will appoint judges to hear national security cases. In addition to the provisions in the National Security Law that allow the mainland authorities to take jurisdiction over certain cases without any independent oversight, and to try those cases in the Chinese courts, this move clearly risks undermining the independence of Hong Kong’s judiciary.”

He added that London will “monitor the use of this requirement closely, including its implications for the role of UK judges in the Hong Kong justice system.”

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