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Hong Kong Sentences Democracy Activists for Violating National Security Law

On Dec. 2, a Hong Kong court sentenced pro-democracy leaders Joshua WongIvan Lam, and Agnes Chow Ting to 13 1/2 months, 7 months, and 10 months in prison respectively, for three counts of inciting, organizing, and participating in unauthorized assemblies.

The three were former members of the Demosisto political party, which disbanded following the passage of the National Security Law by Communist China this June. 

According to Stand News, the West Kowloon Magistrate’s Court in Hong Kong denied them the possibility of appeal or bail on Dec. 2. 

Wong, 24, who rose to fame as a teenage leader of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, had been arrested and sentenced previously for his involvement in that episode. He was secretary-general of Demosisto; then-23-year-old Chow, his deputy; and 26-year-old Ivan Lam the party’s chairman. 

Before leaving the court, Wong said: “I know it’s hard but I’ll hang in there,” and Lam remained calm. Supporters who sat in on the trial encouraged the three to “keep up your efforts.”

Millions of Hong Kong’s 7 million people rallied against the CCP in 2019 and 2020, scaring Beijing into imposing the National Security Law. (Image: Studio Incendo via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

Beginning in spring 2019, Hongkongers rallied against the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) moves to integrate the former British colony more closely with the authoritarian mainland. The impetus for the protests was a proposed extradition law that would have allowed the CCP to arrest anyone suspected of crimes in Hong Kong and have them stand trial in mainland courts; on June 9 and June 12, millions of the city’s 7 million people took part in marches to oppose the law.

The authorities cracked down on the protests, which soon morphed into a full-fledged call for democratic reform, resignation of Hong Kong’s pro-CCP Chief Executive Carrie Lam, and other goals known as the “five demands.” 

No regrets

The National Security Law’s passage came amid the COVID-19 pandemic; the resulting lockdowns had thinned protests even further after the violent police crackdowns of the previous year. 

As political pressure rose, Agnes Chow was arrested on Aug. 11, along with pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai. The newsroom of Lai’s Apple Daily was also raided. The two were soon released on bail. 

However, the authorities have continued to step up suppression of dissent in the city, arresting and intimidating pan-democratic politicians. Ostensibly due to COVID-19, the legislative election scheduled for early September was postponed indefinitely; more than 1,000 people have been detained or arrested since the National Security Law’s implementation. 

The three activists spoke with reporters before going to court. Wong, who along with Lam had been arrested and sentenced before, confirmed that he planned to take the “technical step” of pleading guilty, following his review of all evidence presented by the prosecution and consulting with lawyers.

They expressed concern at how Chow would be treated in prison. 

Agnes Chow told supporters to think of those who had suffered much more than herself. (Image: Stand News)
Agnes Chow told supporters to think of those who had suffered much more than herself. (Image: Stand News)

Chow, nicknamed by supporters in Japan and other parts of Asia as the “goddess of democracy,” told observers that though she was uneasy about her future, there were many who had suffered much more than herself. 

As an example, she noted the 12 Hongkongers arrested and denied proper legal representation after they attempted to escape to democratic Taiwan by boat. 

Stand News reported that Chow was tearful and emotional at her sentencing, which came the day before her 24th birthday. She said she had no regrets about her decision to participate in the democracy movement, even if it meant she could be incarcerated in mainland China. 

Chow’s statement reflects widely held suspicions that despite the extradition bill having been scrapped last October, many of the arrested demonstrators have been secretly sent to mainland Chinese jails. 

The National Security Law has resulted in backlash from the United States. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Donald Trump swiftly condemned the then-planned law; in August, 11 Hong Kong leaders including Carrie Lam were sanctioned by the Commerce Department. 

On Nov. 27, Lam revealed that she had “no banking services made available to her” because of the sanctions and hinted she was concerned the sanctions could discourage people from public service. 

Carrie Lam speaks at Hong Kong handover anniversary amid protests 1-29 screenshot
Carrie Lam has nowhere to deposit her salary due to Hong Kong banks’ compliance with U.S. sanctions. (Image: Screenshot / YouTube)

Youth activism

Though Hong Kong had been returned to China from British rule in 1997, the city was allowed to retain its constitutional rule of law; in 1984, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had promised that Hong Kong would retain functional autonomy under the “one country, two systems” arrangement until 2047. 

However, Hongkongers were granted only limited democratic rights, with the city’s political scene heavily stacked in favor of pro-Beijing officials and business interests. In response to several roundabout attempts by the CCP to encroach on Hong Kong’s autonomy,  Hongkongers participated in several mass movements to resist Beijing — the earliest of which were the still-running annual vigils to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, and the 2003 demonstrations against the Party’s attempt to implement Article 23, legislation that functions similarly to today’s national security law. 

Wong, Chow, and Lam have been involved in the pro-democracy scene for years, with both Wong and Chow being minors during the Umbrella Movement of summer and autumn 2014. Before that, they took part in the movement to oppose the “patriotic education” program that was to instill the city’s youth with pro-communist thinking and values. 

In 2011, the Hong Kong government launched a public consultation on “Moral and Patriotic Education.” This was widely seen as an attempt by the CCP to instill its narratives about Chinese identity and history upon the people of Hong Kong, who were used to traditional Chinese culture and Western-style political freedoms. 

Hongkongers arrive for a candlelight vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Square Massacre, in Victoria Park, Hong Kong, on June 4, 2020. Hongkongers have for more than 30 years felt a sense of affinity with the student protesters killed by the PLA at Tiananmen during the pro-democracy movement in 1989. (Image: Song Bilung/The Epoch Times)

Wong and Lam, who were then in middle school, formed a student organization called Scholarism. The organization played a crucial role in protesting the “patriotic education” program in 2012, with public outcry compelling Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to shelve the policy. 

The role of Scholarism in the anti “national education” movement was crucial: In 2012, Scholarism launched several marches and rallies involving tens of thousands of people, with several student leaders leading the hunger strike. In September of that year, then Chief Executive of Hong Kong Leung Chun-ying was forced to announce a moratorium on the policy.

By 2014, the Umbrella Movement arose to campaign for “dual universal suffrage,” referring to the rights of Hongkongers to vote for both their legislators and chief executive, as stipulated in the Basic Law. Scholarism took part as well, with Joshua Wong becoming a major figure in the protests. 

In 2016, Scholarism transformed into a political party, “Demosisto,” which pushed for greater democratic rights. 

During the anti-extradition protests of 2019, Agnes Chow, a self-taught fluent speaker of Japanese, promoted the pro-democracy movement in Japan, where she gained many supporters. The Japanese government also voiced its support for the movement. 

Japanese supporters of Agnes Chow have nicknamed her the ‘goddess of democracy.’ (Image: Daxiong)

Hope for Hong Kong

Chow reflected popular anxieties when she spoke to reporters about Hong Kong’s future under the national security law. She noted that after the law’s passage, she was stalked shortly before her arrest in August by men who appeared to be plainclothes police — a common type of harassment experienced by dissidents on the mainland. 

“It was like a shift system, four people waited for a few hours, and then a car picked them up, and then three or four other men came,” she told reporters.  

Speaking to Apple Daily before going to court, Chow said that she understood that going to jail “is indeed a difficult process.”

But most harrowing was the security law and its lasting impact on political expression in Hong Kong. With the growing clampdown on dissent, she said: “My future will be taken away as well.” 

Chow remained hopeful. “History tells us that when a dictatorship or totalitarian regime is overthrown, no one can predict the reform beforehand. She encourages the people of Hong Kong to “remember the values they hold,” even when facing dictatorship.

With translation by Jenny Han

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  • Leo Timm is a writer and translator focusing on China's traditional culture, international relations, and its national polity. Follow him on Twitter at @soil_and_grain.

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