The totality of what is going on in Hong Kong since the crackdown ordered by Beijing in 2020 is easily lost. A drip-feed of small news items, an arrest here, a trial there, a sentence here, a media closure there, is briefly noted but the totality of what has happened and continues to happen is easily lost. It is hard to see the wood for the trees.
Contributing to the problem are two laws. One is against the reporting of the substance of preliminary proceedings and bail hearings, which would give a flavor of how the supposedly independent judicial system is actually working. The second is contempt of court, a serious offense for suggesting or even implying that the system has been politicized, with prosecutions, judgments, and sentences reflecting the desire to “severely punish” those who in the past were organized to criticize the system and demand change.
So far more than 150 people have been arrested under the National Security Law imposed by China last year. The flavor of what they can expect in the government-controlled courts – yes, government-controlled, not independent, as the judges in these cases are specially selected by the government – was indicated last month when one Ma Chun-ma got a five-year, nine-month sentence for shouting secessionist slogans. A 20-year-old got three years for a merely verbal action of the same nature.
Free speech in Hong Kong is now apparently defined by judges at the behest of the police. The latter meanwhile are kept busy with an average 500 anonymous tips per day from members of the public making allegations of unpatriotic behavior or speech.
Various pro-democracy figures face multiple charges for words or actions which for years were part of everyday life and entirely legal. Lawyer Chow Hang-tong of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democratic Movement in China, which for years has held an annual vigil for those who died in the onslaught against democracy advocates in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, has been accused of incitement to take part in a banned demonstration which never took place. She is still fighting that case but meanwhile has been charged with subversion under the National Security Law.
By far the biggest group facing prosecution under the law are the 47 charged in February with conspiracy to commit subversion. Most have been denied bail. One High Court judge, in particular, made a name for herself in legal circles by ranting speeches in denying bail which shocked listeners expecting a fair summary of evidence. As it was, the judge, one Esther Toh, sounded, as one American observer put it, “Like Queen Elizabeth imitating Mussolini.” Toh’s preference for unusual hair color in the several proceedings over which she presided added to the bizarre nature of the proceedings.
The bigger problem for the defendants is that the cases have been repeatedly adjourned, most recently until March 4, by which time the un-bailed majority will have been in prison for more than a year. The delay seems a deliberate ploy. First, the prosecution needed more time to gather evidence, then proceeded to produce thousands of pages of so-called evidence – articles, Facebook messages, etc., which then need to be translated – from Chinese into English and vice-versa and the translations approved.
Meanwhile, the prosecution has yet to enter the specifics of the case against all 47, let alone how they apply to the diverse individuals in the group. The prosecution says the accused must soon enter pleas, but without knowing to what offenses they are pleading. The offenses carry sentences from three years to life imprisonment.
Although lawyers generally regard the charges as entirely political and couldn’t stand up in a normal court, the national security law is not a normal law and the appointment of specific judges makes the result very clear. In the unlikely event of an appeal getting to Hong Kong’s so-called Court of Final Appeal, it would be overturned by the final arbiter, the National People’s Congress in Beijing.
Those accused include both high-profile figures such as academic lawyer Benny Gai, who was behind the 2014 Umbrella Movement as well as an unauthorized 2019 primary poll to determine candidates by direct vote, and popularly elected former legislators including Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, who won by far the biggest individual majority in the 201 elections. Also in the dock are veteran democrats Leung Kwok-hing, better known as “Long Hair” and Kwok ka-ki, and the oldest and best known of the women arrestees, former journalist and lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching, 64.
Detainees also include several members of district councils elected in an opposition landslide in 2019, an election that deeply embarrassed the government following mass demonstrations that year and showed that the public held the government more responsible for the violence than the opposition.
The manic way the local government, faithfully following instructions from the mainland’s Liaison Office and often announced in advance by puppet media organizations, goes after democrats and other critics, is demonstrated by the number of charges leveled at Jimmy Lai, the founder and owner of what, until it was closed earlier this year, was the city’s most popular newspaper, Apple Daily.
Lai himself has been in jail for a year, accused under the National Security Law of “collusion with foreign forces. But he is also in jail for inciting several “illegal assemblies” – the demonstrations which are supposed to be allowed by Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which was agreed by the Chinese and British governments before the former colony was handed over to the Chinese prior to 1997. They have become “illegal” on the say-so of the police, the department which is now by far the most important in Hong Kong and which has provided cover for both the Chief Secretary, the number two in the administration, and Secretary for Security, the local equivalent of Josef Stalin’s security chief Lavrentiy Beria.
Lai has faced other, lesser charges, and even while in jail has been accused of other violations of the law, which has led to the disbandment of most opposition organizations and several NGOs critical of the government. Thus December 19 will see a farcical “election” under a new legislative system imposed by Beijing. The number of seats has been increased from 60 to 90 but only 20 are to be chosen by direct election by geographical constituencies as opposed to 50 percent under the previous hardly democratic system. Of the rest, 30 will go as in the past to various commercial and professional groups and 40 percent to those chosen by a 1,500-strong election committee – itself supposed to represent a wide majority of interests but to which only those approved by a National Security Committee can be selected. The underlying theme is that Hong Kong must be represented by “patriots” – in practice defined by those who do not oppose the “divine right” of the Communist Party to rule – so all candidates have to be screened in advance.
The government is currently trying to drum up popular interest in this meaningless election as electors find it hard to choose between Identikit figures who have little to offer in the way of policy and will have zero influence on the government. So desperate is the government to maximize votes that it is illegal to urge either boycott or spoiled ballots.
So worried is the government that things do not go as planned that it is fielding 10,000 policemen to “guard” polling stations, meanwhile, plenty of tea events and transport to the polls will doubtless maximize the numbers induced into a polling booth and be shown examples of democracy at work.