Hong Kong Activists Sentenced For Their Role In Anti-Government Protest

Dec 2, 2020
Originally published on December 2, 2020 5:35 pm

A trio of young Hong Kong opposition activists have been sentenced after pleading guilty to organizing a demonstration last year as part of a larger protest against Hong Kong's receding autonomy.

Their sentencing on Wednesday is the latest blow to the region's opposition movement, which seeks to preserve Hong Kong's limited autonomy from Beijing.

The three — Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam — have been held without bail since pleading guilty in late November for organizing and participating in the protest last year that surrounded police headquarters. Wong, Chow and Lam, all in their 20s, are also founding members of the now-disbanded Demosisto opposition political party.

"We're now joining the battle in prison along with many brave protesters, less visible yet essential in the fight for democracy and freedom for HK," Wong wrote through his lawyers on Twitter shortly after the sentencing.

Wong received a sentence of 13 1/2 months in jail, Chow was sentenced to 10 months and Lam was sentenced to seven months, The Associated Press reported.

Wong previously served a two-month term in 2019 related to his leadership in a civil disobedience campaign in 2014 popularly called the Umbrella Movement.

Hong Kong has arrested more than 10,000 protesters who took part in months-long demonstrations beginning last year. The mass rallies were sparked by a proposed extradition bill with mainland China, and the bill was shelved after peaceful marches.

The marches then ballooned into wider calls for democratic reforms to Hong Kong's government, which is led by a Beijing-appointed chief executive, and later on, reforms of Hong Kong's police department after allegations of police brutality.

This year, Beijing has acted quickly to legally dismantle Hong Kong's opposition movement and bring the region's semi-autonomous institutions under Beijing's legal heel.

In June, China imposed a new national security law that has effectively outlawed future dissent.

Several protesters have already been charged under the law, which carries life sentences for broad crimes including secession and foreign collusion and allows for defendants to be extradited to mainland China.

Last month, Beijing's legislature expelled four opposition lawmakers from Hong Kong's legislature. The remaining opposition lawmakers resigned in protest, leaving the region's Legislative Council entirely populated by industry or pro-Beijing factions.

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Up to now, the United States and its democracy have enjoyed the rule of law. The president has tried for weeks to overturn a democratic election, only to see multiple states certify his defeat. The law has also protected those who wanted to protest that defeat. In Hong Kong, Democratic protections are fading. In line with the wishes of China's national government, Hong Kong authorities are solidifying control, and three pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have been sentenced. Among them is Joshua Wong, a 24-year-old who was given 13 1/2 months prison time. NPR's Emily Feng is covering this story from Beijing. Hi there, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did the activists do?

FENG: They had earlier pled guilty to organizing a protest that surrounded the Hong Kong police headquarters last year. And if you remember, this protest was part of these months-long demonstrations which began over an extradition bill with China but then snowballed into this much bigger movement about protecting Hong Kong's vanishing autonomy. The sentences today were relatively light. Wong, as you mentioned, the most prominent leader, got just over a year. A second activist, Agnes Chow, got 10 months. Ivan lam got seven months. They're not being charged under the national security law. What they're being charged under is general civil and criminal law in Hong Kong. But their arrest signals, you know, a huge blow to the remainder of the opposition movement in Hong Kong. And it's part of this rapid and quite effective legal demolition of Hong Kong's opposition.

INSKEEP: And you mentioned the national security law isn't being used here, but it's in existence and makes it much harder to conduct democratic activities. Where does that leave the opposition?

FENG: It's been basically obliterated. Beijing has been very clear that it wants to make opposition virtually impossible well before 2047, which was originally the deadline that Hong Kong had to enjoy semi-autonomy under Beijing's rule. But in the last few months alone, while the rest of the world was in the grips and still is in the grips of this coronavirus pandemic, Beijing has done the following with the national security law - it's used the law to dismantle the legal barrier between Hong Kong and mainland China. Several protesters and smaller political parties have already been charged under the law. Beijing's legislature has expelled four opposition lawmakers just last month, and then the rest of the opposition camp resigned in protest, meaning that Hong Kong's legislature is now entirely populated by industry or pro-Beijing factions. There is no law-making opposition in Hong Kong anymore. And as a result, Hong Kong's law enforcement feels emboldened to arrest more activists and protesters.

INSKEEP: What steps might the central government and its allies in Hong Kong take next?

FENG: We should pay attention to the education system. There are already hundreds of secondary school teachers who are being investigated for anonymous complaints that they support last year's protests and they're teaching politically incorrect material. And universities, which were hotbeds of protests last year, are similarly under scrutiny. And then also look to the judicial system in Hong Kong's much vaunted court system. There have been no removals of sitting judges just yet, but these judges are the most important vanguard that prevent more of this legal blurring between mainland China and Hong Kong, which is supposed to have legal autonomy of sorts under its own mini constitution called the basic law. And third, there will be a growing exodus of Hongkongers who are looking for a new home. Countries like the U.S., Australia are starting to accept them now as political refugees, which is the first time that Hongkongers have had to seek that protection.

INSKEEP: Refugees from a place that was considered one of the freest places in Asia. Emily, thank you very much.

FENG: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: NPR's Emily Feng in Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.