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

Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam pleaded guilty to participating in an unsanctioned protest in 2019.

Pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, right, and Ivan Lam board a Hong Kong Correctional Service van ahead of a sentencing hearing at Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre on December 2, 2020, in Hong Kong.
Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Three prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates were sentenced to prison Wednesday for their roles in a protest during the massive demonstrations against an extradition bill during the summer of 2019. It’s yet another troubling sign of the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms.

Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam — all 20-something-year-old members of a now-disbanded pro-democracy group known as Demosisto — all pleaded guilty to the charges related to participating in, and inciting others to join, an unauthorized but largely peaceful protest outside Hong Kong police headquarters in Wanchai on June 2019. All potentially faced sentences of up to three years, but Wong will serve 13.5 months in prison, Chow faces a term of 10 months, 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 larger crackdown on Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms that has intensified after the Chinese government implemented a sweeping national security law in July. That law gives authorities broad powers to target dissenters or anyone who challenges Beijing, making things like protesting or taking any anti-government stance a potentially seditious or terroristic activity.

Wong faces additional charges, including for participating in another unsanctioned protest in October 2019 and for violating the Hong Kong government’s mask ban, which had barred people from wearing face coverings at mass gatherings, months before the coronavirus pandemic would make mask-wearing mandatory. He was also charged 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 law, allegedly for “colluding with foreign forces.” She could potentially face life in prison if charged and found guilty.

Though the activists’ legal woes stem from Hong Kong’s recent upheaval, they were also key figures in Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement, which challenged proposed changes to Hong Kong’s election rules. The movement didn’t succeed in its goal of giving Hongkongers universal suffrage, but it became the precursor to the mass anti-government demonstrations last summer and fall.

Those began as a protest against a controversial extradition bill and transformed into a larger pro-democracy movement that engulfed Hong Kong for months before arrests and pandemic restrictions, and, finally, the national security law helped to smother the resistance on the streets.

But the 2019 Hong Kong protests were largely leaderless. People organized on social media and online, closely guarding their anonymity for fear of reprisal. The fluidity of the protests made it hard for Hong Kong authorities to curtail or weaken them, so they went after the next-best thing: well-known pro-democracy figures who had publicly sided with the cause, even if they themselves weren’t on the front lines of organizing the protests. Wong himself acknowledged this last year, saying last August that it was “completely ridiculous” that the police were targeting “specific prominent figures of social movement in the past and framing them as the leaders of the anti-extradition bill protests.”

Hong Kong’s freedoms are deteriorating in real time

The sentencing of these pro-democracy figures is just the latest degradation of Hong Kong’s freedoms and its autonomy.

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

The national security law has accelerated this process, chipping away at the facade of “one country, two systems.” That has directly threatened Hong Kong’s civil society, independent press, and, most obviously, the territory’s sustained pro-democracy movement.

Wong faces additional charges, and so could Chow, under the new national security law. This is Wong’s fourth time in jail, and he was already disqualified from running in Hong Kong’s local elections last year. He reported to custody before sentencing and was placed in solitary confinement after a scan allegedly showed a “foreign object” in his stomach. Wong said he had trouble sleeping because the lights were left on for 24 hours.

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

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

And, as Law and Chow pointed out, the “much more severe national security law” looms. The expansive law has rapidly chilled speech in Hong Kong. Journalists and Hongkongers purged their social media histories this summer, in case past statements could make them targets of the new law. Pro-democracy books were pulled from shelves of libraries in July, including some written by Wong. In August, Hong Kong authorities told publishers to remove “sensitive content” from textbooks.

Activists and opposition figures were arrested throughout the summer and fall, some for allegedly advocating for Hong Kong’s independence, a “secessionist” activity illegal under the national security law. In August, 12 activists tried to flee to Taiwan in a speedboat, including some who’d reportedly been charged under the national security law, but they were intercepted by Chinese authorities.

In July, a dozen pro-democracy candidates were barred from participating in the Legislative Council elections. Those elections were slated for this September — until pro-Beijing Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam postponed them a full year, citing the coronavirus. (Which, despite a recent spike, has largely been under control in Hong Kong for months.) In November, the Chinese passed another law that disqualified legislators for “unpatriotic” behavior; a handful of pro-democracy legislators were quickly expelled. The rest of the pro-democracy legislators resigned en masse from the pro-Beijing body. And if those Legislative Council elections are held next year, Hongkongers on mainland China will likely be allowed to vote, assuring domination by pro-China forces.

The press, too, has taken a hit. Jimmy Lai, the founder and owner of Next Digital, which publishes Apple Daily, a Hong Kong publication that has backed the pro-democracy protests, was arrested in August under the national security law on allegations of colluding with foreign powers. And just as the pro-democracy activists were sentenced on Wednesday, Lai was arrested on additional fraud charges, along with two other executives from Next Digital. And this week, 40 staff members with Hong Kong’s network, i-Cable News, were abruptly fired. Many belonged to its award-winning investigative unit; other journalists quit in solidarity. One former employee told Radio Free Asia the firings were “a bullet to the head” of newsgathering operations at i-Cable News.

All of this has put Hong Kong in a particularly perilous place. Resistance is still happening, but public protests or dissent come with tremendous risks. “It’s not the end of the fight, read Wong’s Twitter account Wednesday, posted via his lawyers. “Ahead of us is another challenging battleground. We’re now joining the battle in prison along with many brave protestors, less visible yet essential in the fight for democracy and freedom for HK.”

Law and Chow, in their op-ed, called on the incoming Biden administration to retain its criticism of China, but also “foster a new China policy that prioritizes human rights over other interests.” The Trump administration has revoked Hong Kong’s special trade status and placed sanctions on officials tied to the anti-democratic crackdown in Hong Kong — including Lam, the chief executive, who recently complained she has to hoard cash as she no longer can access banks. But it has so far failed to deter Beijing, which has only escalated its campaign to crush Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.

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