Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 28 February 2021


Hong Kong protesters defy ban to show support for detained leaders

Pro-democracy activist Benny Tai arrives for a court hearing on Monday after he and scores of other opposition figures were detained and charged with subversion a day earlier © REUTERS

Hundreds of Hong Kongers have defied the threat of prosecution to protest against the charging of 47 pro-democracy politicians swept up in the city’s biggest national security law case.

Gathered outside a bail hearing for the arrested activists on Monday, protesters chanted slogans including “Regain HK, revolution of our times”, a phrase authorities said violated the security law.

The former elected lawmakers and activists — who included Joshua Wong, the opposition leader already jailed in a separate case — were charged with subversion on Sunday in a move that highlighted the government’s determination to crush dissent in the city, critics said.

Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, said the detentions underscored China’s “broken promises to the world about Hong Kong’s autonomy & democratic rights”.

“We stand in solidarity with these brave activists,” Sullivan wrote on Twitter. 

In a separate statement, Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, called for their immediate release. “Political participation and freedom of expression should not be crimes,” he said.

Beijing imposed the national security law last June to quell pro-democracy protests that kicked off in 2019. Most prominent activists are in prison, on bail or have fled overseas.

The US condemnation, which came despite Beijing warning the Biden administration last month not to interfere in the territory, followed criticism from the UK and the EU.

“It shows in the starkest terms the national security law being used to eliminate political dissent rather than restore order,” said Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary.

The 47 activists charged on Sunday were among 55 pro-democracy politicians arrested by police in January.

The activists were involved in an unofficial primary vote by the opposition to select the most popular politicians to run in an election for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, the city’s de facto parliament.

Police charged the activists with “conspiracy to commit subversion”, a crime under the national security law that is punishable with up to life imprisonment. The authorities allege the primary was part of a strategy to topple the government.

John Clancey, an American human rights lawyer based in Hong Kong who was detained in January and became the first expatriate to be arrested under the security law, was not charged.

Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the arrests underscored the intensifying squeeze on the opposition.

“What constitutes a breach of the national security law depends on the determination of the authorities and it's relatively easy for them to use blanket legislation to incriminate politicians or activists who they think . . . have done something detrimental to the authority of the central government,” he said, referring to Beijing.

The bail hearing on Monday was tense. Police maintained a heavy presence to keep watch over the throngs of supporters, many of whom had lined up for hours outside the court.

On Sunday, the politicians hugged farewell to loved ones and waved goodbye to supporters before giving themselves up to police. Some swapped to eyeglasses with plastic frames and shoes without shoelaces in anticipation of being detained for a long period.

“No matter how difficult it will be. I want to tell all of the Hong Kong people, no matter where you are, to keep faithful and to be hopeful and to continue our struggle,” said Lester Shum, one of the arrested politicians, as he held his wife’s hands.

The introduction of the security law has unleashed a crackdown on the city’s previously freewheeling civic life. Teachers have been disqualified, journalists arrested and civil servants forced to swear loyalty oaths.

China has also signalled a deeper shake-up of the electoral system, saying it wants to ensure only “patriots govern Hong Kong”.

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