Seven Democracy Activists Just Got Convicted. What Was Really on Trial?


“It appears the aim of both governments is to silence opposition,” Davis wrote in an email from New York. “Why line up an entire case around moderate [democrats] who long advocated non-violence?”

“The grudge is old,” he says, “but the effort to take these people out is new.”

Their efforts date back to before the 1997 handover to China, which many in Hong Kong saw as an opportunity to build democratic rule for the first time in the city’s history. In more than a century as a crown colony of Britain, its residents had never been allowed free elections or the right to govern on their own.

Many Hong Kongers were keen to lose the colonial yoke and become part of China, feeling they could help the nation ravaged by Mao emerge from decades of cruel politics and poverty. Then came the spring of 1989. After members of the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on people in Beijing, some who joined a sprawling sit-in for freedoms, Hong Kong erupted in peaceful protests. The Chinese government knew it needed to calm the locals and the markets. Beijing agreed to a constitution that granted freedoms to protest, gather, publish and strike. Hong Kong, the constitution promised, would have 50 years of these rights and a “high degree of autonomy,” and would eventually choose leaders through democratic elections. China’s legislature would hold the power to intervene only in matters of foreign affairs and national security.

From the start, Beijing couldn’t keep out of Hong Kong’s affairs. The pace of those intrusions quickened in 2014. By then, Xi Jinping was president and Hong Kong was again agitating for full voting rights, especially the freedom to choose its chief executive without vetting by Beijing. That touched off a 79-day mass sit-in known as the Umbrella Revolution named for the device deployed when police showered crowds with pepper spray. Beijing didn’t give in to their demands, but exhausted Hong Kongers knew there were many like-minded souls whose fury might be harnessed again.

Protest-related prosecutions rose throughout 2020, with new ones starting all the time. The government has zealously enforced strict public-gathering laws still on the books from British colonial days. More danger for protesters arrived last June, when Beijing imposed a broad national security law filled with vague provisions. Designed to thwart acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreigners, the law allows the government to recast defiant acts 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 deemed as attacks on the Chinese central government. A few people face trial for that.

The law has ensnared 100 people in arrests and at least 54 prosecutions, including Lai, founder of Next Media. Lai pressed for U.S. sanctions against China during interviews with overseas officials and media, acts that prosecutors may consider collusion with foreign forces at trial. Most residents were blindsided in February when Hong Kong’s government charged 47 lawyers, district councilors and activists with conspiring to subvert the government. Their offense is tied to an unofficial primary election that aimed to choose a slate strong enough to oust the majority pro-China bloc and put greater pressure on Beijing.

In a city that once seemed to mark most holidays with a protest, there is no tolerance now for large, organized disagreement with the government. Police have not sanctioned any marches, vigils or protests since early 2020, citing the pandemic. That included the annual candlelight vigil that has honored Tiananmen victims on every June 4 since 1990. (For good measure, people are being prosecuted for pushing over barriers and gathering in Victoria Park on June 4, 2020 to mark the event.) Many residents are convinced that under the new security law, the vigil will never take place in Hong Kong again.

Since the democracy protests quieted in early 2020, and police set to work rounding up hundreds of protesters, observers have wondered why the seven people in Courtroom 3 were charged at all. Martin Lee and colleagues played minor roles, at most, in demonstrations that previous year. Only one defendant served with the Civil Human Rights Front, the civic group that has for years organized mass marches. (That man, Au Nok-hin, pleaded guilty on the trial’s first day. He’s now in jail, also charged in the July primary case.)

Attending the trial for several of its 20 days, Avery Ng, chairman of the League of Social Democrats, the party started by Leung Kwok-hung, said that prosecuting the seven was “the easiest way to incite fear among the public.” Ng faces protest disorder charges of his own in a separate case. “If the most careful, the least radical leaders can be tried for walking in the rain,” he told me during a break, “it sets a low bar for the rest of us.”

The trial became, in part, a referendum on Hong Kong’s “procession” laws, a relic of British colonial rule that give police the right to permit or deny any public march, no matter how peaceful. In the trial’s closing days, the defendants’ barristers argued that the procession after the legal rally should never have been banned. With all subway entrances jammed, the defendants and thousands of attendees had no choice but to leave the packed rally by walking. And yes, they shouted slogans and carried a banner while doing so.

Police officials told the court that they refused to sanction the Front’s requested march that day because several previous protests had ended with some people hurling Molotov cocktails. Allowing a moving protest, one whose theme was anti-police, they said, would have invited trouble. By imposing a ban, the defense argued, police penalized the peaceful group for the violent acts of others.

The defense also raised a constitutional argument: allow police to sanction or block protests has created an undue block on their free speech, in violation of the city’s constitution.

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