Mon 18 January 2021

Steve Shaw reports on the recent arrest of democracy activists on the island, where protests against Chinese influence were brought to an end in January following the Coronavirus outbreak.

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In 1985, a group of 23 Hong Kong residents came together with 59 officials from the Chinese Government to draft the city’s Basic Law, a mini-constitution that not only protected the rights of citizens but prohibited Beijing from interfering in its autonomy. 

Among the 23 who helped to create the system of governance that would become known as ‘one country, two systems’ was Martin Lee, a man who would go on to be the founding chairman of the Democratic Party and who has been described as the “grandfather of Hong Kong democracy”.

“They urged us to be confident about Hong Kong’s autonomy,” the 81-year-old told Taiwan News last September. “Only the flag and the governor would change, they said. I compared our situation to a see-saw game, balancing big China and little Hong Kong required granting us democracy and limited interference by Beijing. They understood.”

But, on April 18, Lee was among more than a dozen other democracy activists to be rounded up and arrested in what the former UK Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind called a “truly appalling attack on the very heart of Hong Kong’s freedoms, the rule of law and autonomy” guaranteed in the Basic Law. It came after China’s top representative office in Hong Kong claimed that it is entitled to get involved in Hong Kong’s affairs and is not subject to Basic Law restrictions.

The democracy activists, which also included media tycoon Jimmy Lai and lawyer Margaret Ng, stand accused of organising, publicising or taking part in protests against Chinese rule, which were abruptly brought to an end in January with the emergence of COVID-19. The six months of demonstrations represented one of the most significant challenges to Communist Party rule in decades and has pushed Beijing to begin tightening its grip on the city using the legal system.

“The arrests are outrageous, they were definitely among the most peaceful protestors out there,” a resident who asked to remain anonymous told Byline Times. “It’s really depressing to live in Hong Kong, every day you turn on the news and it makes you angry but then you realise there is nothing you can do to fight back. The news from the courts is especially depressing when you see things like a boy who was shot with live rounds is now charged with rioting and will probably go to jail. How can our society return to normal when a majority of the population are traumatised and hate the other side?”

More than 7,000 people were arrested during the protests and more continue to be rounded up. Earlier this month, some of the city’s top judges told the Reuters that they were told that the rule of law must be used to preserve “one-party rule”. Others claimed that Beijing is looking to influence the city’s legal process by intervening in how judges are selected. State-controlled press on the mainland has also warned Hong Kong’s judges not to “absolve” protestors.

“We are worried that they are losing patience, and will find ways of tightening the screws,” said one senior judge. “They always want to know why Hong Kong is so confused and chaotic, and not patriotic.”

Ben Rogers, founder and chairman of Hong Kong Watch, told Byline Times: “The situation is complex. Many of the judges retain their independence, and the Hong Kong Bar Association are some of the strongest advocates for the rule of law in Hong Kong. But the Secretary for Justice is also the Director of Public Prosecutions and has chosen to use a range of antiquated common law charges to pursue political opponents over the last few years. Most recently, the charging of a district councillor under sedition legislation which has not been used since 1952 is particularly concerning.”

That district councillor was Cheng Lai-king, an opposition politician arrested using the colonial-era law that has not been used since 1967. Her arrest came after she shared the identity of a police officer responsible for firing a projectile at Indonesian journalist Veby Mega Indah during a demonstration in September, blinding her in one eye. The identity of the officer was key to a private prosecution against the officer that Indah had been unable to pursue because he was wearing a mask and not displaying his police unique identification number at the time.

Government advisor and former chairman of the Bar Association, Ronny Tong Ka-wah, said that the use of the sedition law – which relates to speech considered capable of inciting people to rebel against the authority – was reasonable because anyone who claims freedom of speech is absolute is “wrong and misleading”.

The conviction has fuelled fresh debate over a proposed national security law, known in Hong Kong as Article 23. This states that it “shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets”. It would also prohibit foreign political interference.

In 2003, the legislation came close to being passed but it was shelved following demonstrations from citizens who fear it is too broad and allows warrant-less searches by police, the suppression of freedom of speech and a ban on Hong Kong activists and NGOs from forming partnerships with groups overseas. Beijing’s top official in the city, Luo Huining, said in April that the 2019 protests gave enough justification for it to be reintroduced as the demonstrations had dealt a major blow to the rule of law. 

“If the anthill eroding the role of rule of law is not cleared, the dam of national security will be destroyed and the wellbeing of all Hong Kong residents will be damaged,” he said in a speech for China’s national security education day. He added that COVID-19 was also a reason to pass the law, branding hospital workers who went on strike to demand a full border closure when the outbreak began, a “political form of the Coronavirus”.

But Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, Chris Patten, said that what is happening in the city is the not a demonstration of the rule of law. “This is what authoritarian governments do,” he said. “With the world’s attention focused on the appalling COVID-19 epidemic, Beijing and its subservient Government in Hong Kong have taken yet another step towards burying ‘one country, two systems’.

“The arrest of some of the most distinguished leaders over decades of the campaign for democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong is an unprecedented assault on the values which have underpinned Hong Kong’s way of life for years. It becomes ever more clear, week by week and day by day, that Beijing is determined to throttle Hong Kong. The world should make clear how this further undermines any residual trust that we still have in the Chinese Communist dictatorship.”

The Hong Kong Government has said that the rule of law is “a core value in Hong Kong” and stressed that it will “always respect and protect human rights and freedoms”.

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