Commentary on Political Economy

Friday, 4 December 2020


Pompeo Decries Hong Kong ‘Persecution’ as Activists Head to Jail

  • U.S. top diplomat criticizes Joshua Wong, Jimmy Lai cases
  • Democracy advocates face growing jail threat amid crackdown
Michael Pompeo
Michael Pompeo Photographer: Alessia Pierdomenico/Bloomberg

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo accused Hong Kong of using the courts to engage in “political persecution” after prominent activists were detained and a former opposition lawmaker fled to Europe.

Pompeo said in a statement Thursday that the decisions to sentence activists including Joshua Wong to jail while denying bail to billionaire media mogul Jimmy Lai violated fundamental rights guaranteed by the treaty allowing the former British colony’s return to China in 1997. He said the U.S. would work with its allies to defend such freedoms, something the incoming administration of Joe Biden has also pledged to do.

“The United States is appalled by the Hong Kong government’s political persecution of Hong Kong’s courageous pro-democracy advocates,” Pompeo said. “The use of courts to silence peaceful dissent is a hallmark of authoritarian regimes and underscores once again that the Chinese Communist Party’s greatest fear is the free speech and free thinking of its own people.”

Meanwhile, former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui announced Thursday he was going into exile in the U.K. after fleeing to Denmark earlier this week. Hui was among those arrested last month in connection with a disruptive protest in the legislative chamber in May and quit last month as part of a mass resignation by opposition legislators over the government’s ouster of four of their members.

Hong Kong Demonstrators Mark Anniversary of June 12 Protest Clashes
Ted Hui is arrested during a protest in Hong Kong on June 12. Photographer: Justin Chin/Bloomberg

The developments illustrate the growing threat of jail hanging over pro-democracy activists as the Hong Kong government uses new and once-little-used laws to press criminal cases against them. Police have arrested more than 10,000 people since a wave of largely leaderless protests last year, including 26 under new national security legislation carrying sentences as long as life in prison.

The U.S., which has already sanctioned Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and several other officials responsible for the city, is facing a mid-December deadline to identify banks for penalties under a law passed earlier this year to support the local democracy movement. Biden has vowed to “fully enforce” such Hong Kong-related legislation and said he would convene a “Summit for Democracy” to reach new commitments to fight corruption and authoritarianism and advance human rights.

Activists Flee

China has repeatedly rejected such actions as meddling in its own domestic affairs and issued countersanctions against U.S. lawmakers among other figures. Lam and Chinese officials argue the arrests have been necessary to restore stability to the Asian financial center after last year’s sometimes violent unrest.

Ten members of the city’s former opposition bloc are facing criminal charges related to scuffles in the legislative chamber or their appearance at unauthorized rallies. Wong, 24, who was sentenced to more than a year in prison Wednesday for participating in a June 2019 protest outside the police headquarters, faces two other similar criminal cases.

Hong Kong Media Mogul Jimmy Lai Denied Bail in Fraud Case
Jimmy Lai arrives at the Lai Chi Kok Reception Center after being denied bail in a fraud case in Hong Kong on Dec. 3. Photographer: Billy H.C. Kwok/Bloomberg

Lai, 73, was denied bail in a fraud case Thursday, potentially keeping him behind bars for months as he battles more serious foreign collusion allegations under the security law. The judge presiding over the case deemed the Next Digital Ltd. founder to be a flight risk, Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper reported, although he had already surrendered his passport and said he had no intention to leave Hong Kong.

Hui, the former lawmaker, was among several pro-democracy activists to exit the city since the move to enact the national security law in June. Twelve more have been detained in mainland China since August after being caught attempting to flee Hong Kong by boat. The trend has led to efforts in places like Australia, Canada and the U.K. to make it easier for city residents to relocate.

The high-profile departures, however, may make it harder for others facing prosecution to leave or secure bail from courts. The security law also allows courts to deny bail before trial because defendants may “continue to commit acts endangering national security,” a power that rights lawyers say clashes with the presumption of innocence in the city’s Common Law tradition.

— With assistance by Sheridan Prasso

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