Today
Thu 28 October 2021

Today, activists for democracy in the former British colony find themselves with no protests, no opposition law-makers and, soon, without their influential leaders

What a difference a year makes in Hong Kong.

Last November, the city’s streets were filled with pro-democracy protestors. Clashes with police were a regular occurrence, with two of Hong Kong’s international universities key battlegrounds.

Global support was increasing for the pro-democracy push as America passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. The movement was resilient and full of hope.

But, on Monday, as high-profile activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam stood in court facing charges that will likely see them face prison, it summed up a torrid year for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy hopes.

Today, the pro-democracy movement finds itself with no protests, no opposition law-makers and soon to be without its influential activists. Since the implementation by Beijing of the National Security Law in June – which effectively curtails protest and freedom of speech – the political clampdown has gathered pace, severely jeopardising Hong Kong’s unique autonomy. 

Hong Kong Police cordon off an area after shopping mall protests, in Hong Kong, in 2020. Photo: Tommy Walker

The people of Hong Kong have lived under a ‘one country, two systems’ agreement since its return to China from Britain in 1997. This allows the city to enjoy its limited democracy until 2047.

Many felt that Beijing has encroached on the agreement. A proposed extradition bill sparked seven months of pro-democracy protests in the city, as further demands followed. Beijing then enacted the National Security Law, which prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, and its details can be widely interpreted. It allows dissidents to be arrested more easily, allowing Beijing to reshape the city as it sees fit.

These actions by China have widely been interpreted as violating the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement.

To the international community, Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow have been two of the most prominent faces of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, dating back to the Umbrella Movement in 2014. They have garnered international attention for their efforts to shine a light on Hong Kong’s democratic decline.

But, despite their worldwide recognition, they still have to answer to the legal prosecutions against them in Hong Kong.

Agnes Chow (left), Ivan Lam (centre) and Joshua Wong (right) outside West Kowloon Magistrates Court, in Hong Kong, on 23 November 2020. Photo: Tommy Walker

In June 2019, at Hong Kong’s West Kowloon Magistrates Court, the charges against them and fellow activist Ivan Lam were for unlawful assembly. After receiving legal advice, all three decided to plead guilty. Wong admitted to both “organising and inciting unauthorised assemblies” and could face a maximum five years in jail.

The trio are now in custody and will be sentenced on 2 December. But the writing is on the wall for Hong Kong’s most prominent activists.

“The green uniformed correctional officers, the grey-white iron cells and cells, the big tattooed man with the background of the river, the hard-to-speak-out food, are what I’ve experienced in the past three times in prison, and these are probably my future, again,” Wong said on Sunday.

Agnes Chow, who has never been to jail before, shared her own heartfelt message: “If I am sentenced to prison this time, it will be the first time in my life. I am mentally prepared but I am still a little afraid.”

Agnes Chow arrives at West Kowloon Magistrates Court, in Hong Kong, on 23 November 2020. Photo: Tommy Walker

It is unlikely that these charges will be their last. The only positive – if there are any – is that they fall under Hong Kong’s own Basic Law, which means that the activists will avoid the harsh penalties introduced by the National Security Law, including life imprisonment.

Leung Kwok-hung – also known as ‘Long Hair’ – is a Hong Kong social activist. Speaking outside of the court building, Leung said the charges and pending sentencing was “revenge” as they relate to incidents outside the Hong Kong police headquarters. “I think the whole procedure for the prosecution is a persecution,” he told Byline Times. 

Leung Kwok-Hung, also known as ‘Long Hair’ (right), with Jimmy Lai (left) outside West Kowloon Magistrates Court, in Hong Kong. Photo: Tommy Walker

The UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has today published a report on Hong Kong covering the period since Beijing implemented the National Security Law.

“The people of Hong Kong must be able to exercise fundamental rights and freedoms,” he said on Twitter. In another statement, he added: “It is not too late for the [Chinese] authorities to reach out and start to heal divisions, however complicated and difficult that might be.”

But despite this and other Western governments reaching out to China over Hong Kong, the city’s clampdown goes on.

November alone has seen 20 arrests by the Hong Kong Police Force of politicians, journalists and teachers all facing wide-ranging charges, including some under the National Security Law. It is a clear sign that the internal re-shaping of Hong Kong is just beginning. With thousands of protestors also under police investigation, Hong Kong’s democracy is seriously under threat.

Earlier this month, all 19 pro-democracy legislators left their seats in the Legislative Council – Hong Kong’s top political body – which now leaves no opposition to the majority pro-Beijing camp. Four legislators had been disqualified by the Hong Kong Government which deemed that they had “failed to uphold the Basic Law” after Beijing had swiftly given them new powers to disqualify any law-maker who may threaten national security. The remaining 15 legislators then resigned en masse.

Inside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council’s main chamber the day after all pro-democracy legislators left their seats, on 12 November 2020. Photo: Tommy Walker

Joseph Cheng, a political analyst and retired professor at Hong Kong’s City University, told Byline Times that he believes the legislators had “no choice” to quit as it “can no longer offer checks and balances”. He added those in Hong Kong will have to “adapt to the new situation”.

“The recent National Security Law has proved to be an effective instrument of suppression,” he said. “Because of the severe suppression, it is difficult to organise any protest activities. Those who have moved abroad will continue their international lobbying activities. Hong Kong people will not give up. They will keep their heads low but will not surrender.”

Despite the startling scenes last year that initially brought hope to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy supporters, the future of the city was still hazy. Things have moved from then, and the current political climate is as clear as day.

Those who have been connected to the pro-democracy movement are likely to be scrutinised. Those who wish to speak out may violate the National Security Law. More than ever, Beijing is firmly standing by to sweep up any issues that may arise within the former British colony, bringing the city under a new political era.

This is Hong Kong’s new normal.


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