“It seems that the goal of both governments is to silence the opposition,” Davis wrote in an email from New York. “Why do an entire case moderately? [democrats] Who has long campaigned for nonviolence? “
“The grudge is old,” he says, “but the effort to eliminate these people is new.”
Their efforts date back to before the 1997 handover to China, which many in Hong Kong saw for the first time in the city’s history as an opportunity to establish democratic rule. In more than a century as Britain’s crown colony, residents never had free elections or the right to rule themselves.
Many Hong Kong residents wanted to lose the colonial yoke and become part of China. They felt they could help the Mao-ravaged nation emerge from decades of cruel politics and poverty. Then came the spring of 1989. Peaceful protests broke out in Hong Kong after members of the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on people in Beijing, some of whom had joined an extended sit-in for liberties. The Chinese government knew it was necessary to calm the locals and the markets. Beijing approved a constitution that allowed the freedom to protest, assemble, publish and strike. Hong Kong, the constitution promised, would have 50 years of these rights and a “high degree of autonomy” and would eventually elect leaders through democratic elections. China’s lawmakers would have the power to intervene only on foreign policy and national security issues.
Beijing could not stay out of Hong Kong’s affairs from the start. The pace of these interventions accelerated in 2014. By then, Xi Jinping was president, and Hong Kong again campaigned for full voting rights, particularly the freedom to elect its chairman without Beijing scrutiny. That sparked a 79-day mass sit-in known as the Umbrella Revolution, named for the device used when police showered pepper spray on the crowd. Beijing refused to give in to their demands, but exhausted Hong Kongers knew there were many like-minded souls whose anger could be reused.
Prosecutions increased over the course of 2020 and new ones began constantly. The government has been zealously enforcing tough public assembly laws that are still on the books of British colonial times. A greater threat to protesters came last June when Beijing imposed a comprehensive national security law with vague provisions. The law was developed to prevent secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreigners. It allows the government to formulate defiant actions as something more sinister and destabilizing than mere opposition to laws or officials. Some protest tactics, such as shouting or posting popular slogans seeking revolution, have been viewed as attacks on the Chinese central government. Some people are brought to justice for this.
The law has involved 100 people in arrests and at least 54 prosecutions, including Lai, founder of Next Media. Lai urged US sanctions against China during interviews with foreign officials and the media. This could lead prosecutors to consider colluding with foreign forces. Most residents were blind in February when the Hong Kong government accused 47 lawyers, district councilors and activists of conspiring to undermine the government. Their offense is tied to an unofficial primary election aimed at choosing a plan strong enough to oust the largely pro-Chinese bloc and put more pressure on Beijing.
In a city that once seemed to mark most of the holidays with protest, there is now no tolerance for large, organized disagreements with the government. The police have not sanctioned any marches, vigils or protests citing the pandemic since the beginning of 2020. This included the annual candlelight vigil, at which victims of Heavenly Peace have been honored on June 4th every year since 1990. (To a large extent, people are being prosecuted for breaking barriers and gathering in Victoria Park on June 4, 2020 to celebrate the event.) Many residents believe the vigil will never be held in Hong Kong again under the new security law becomes.
Democracy protests Calmed down in early 2020, and police went to work to round up hundreds of protesters. Observers have wondered why the seven people in Court Room 3 were charged in the first place. Martin Lee and his colleagues only played a minor role in demonstrations last year. Only one defendant served the Civil Human Rights Front, the civic group that has organized mass marches for years. (This man, Au Nok-hin, pleaded guilty on the first day of the trial. He is now in prison, which was also charged in the July primary case.)
Avery Ng, chairman of the League of Social Democrats founded by Leung Kwok-hung, attended the trial for several of his 20 days and said persecuting the seven “is the easiest way to fear the public.” In a separate case, Ng is faced with a separate charge of protest interference. “If the most cautious, least radical leaders can be brought to justice to run in the rain,” he told me during a pause, “it sets a low bar for the rest of us.”
The process turned in part into a referendum on Hong Kong’s “processional laws,” a relic of British colonial rule that gave the police the right to allow or refuse any public march, no matter how peaceful it may be. In the final days of the trial, the defendants’ lawyers argued that the procession should never have been banned after the legal rally. With all subway entrances clogged, the defendants and thousands of attendees had no choice but to walk out of the crowded rally. And yes, they shouted slogans while carrying a banner.
Police officers told the court that they refused to authorize the march requested by the front that day, as several previous protests ended with some people hurling Molotov cocktails. Allowing a moving protest, the subject of which was anti-police, would have caused anger. By imposing a ban, the defense argued, the police were punishing the peaceful group for the violence of others.
The defense also made a constitutional argument: allowing the police to sanction or block protests has resulted in an inappropriately blocking their freedom of speech, which is against the city’s constitution.