Hong Kong

Guilty verdict for Hong Kong 'defenders' spells end of local democracy

Ex legislator and "father of Hong Kong's democracy" Martin Lee (82) at the court in Hong Kong.
Ex legislator and "father of Hong Kong's democracy" Martin Lee (82) at the court in Hong Kong. Isaac Lawrence AFP

Seven of Hong Kong's top pro-democracy advocates, including a media tycoon and an 82-year-old veteran of the movement, were convicted Thursday for their roles in organising and participating in a march during anti-government protests in 2019.

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Jimmy Lai, the owner of the outspoken Apple Daily tabloid, Martin Lee, the octogenarian founder of the city’s Democratic Party, and five former pro-democracy lawmakers were found guilty in a ruling handed down by district judge Amanda Woodcock. They were charged with "organising an unauthorised assembly". They face up to five years in prison. Two other former lawmakers charged in the same case had pleaded guilty earlier.

According to the ruling, the police had initially agreed to requests to allow a mass meeting in Victoria Park, but then objected to the planned march to Chater Road, about 2 km away from the park, for a second gathering "having regard to the interests of public order and public safety and for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others".

In spite of the police reservations, six of the seven defendants convicted on Thursday, including Lee and Lai, left Victoria Park on 18 August 2019, carrying "a long banner," leading a procession, attended by some 1,7 million people, through the center of the city. The other defendant, Margaret Yee, joined them on the way and helped carry the banner.

The verdict is the latest blow to Hong Kong's democracy movement as Beijing and the local, Beijing-controlled Hong Kong government, continue to extend control over the semi-autonomous territory. 

Vibrant political culture

Hong Kong was known for its vibrant political culture and freedoms unthinkable in the rest of China during the decades it was a Crown Colony, linked to London. At the same time, the island-state served as a refuge for those who escaped the Communist regime on the mainland. 

After long negotiations ending in 1984, the UK agreed to hand over the city to China in 1997, and in a joint declaration with London, Beijing pledged to allow Hong Kong to retain those freedoms for 50 years from 1997. Details for the implementation of China's rule over Hong Kong, nicknamed "One Country, Two Systems," were enshrined in the Basic Law.

Recently Beijing has ushered in a series of measures that many fear are a step closer to making Hong Kong no different from cities on the mainland, starting with a merciless "National Security Law" in July 2020 that was immediately put into use to silence political opponents. We have also witnessed the introduction of a Chinese office to oversee security in the center of Hong Kong, and increasing pressure on sitting politicians to toe the Beijing line. 

Initial hope

In slightly more than 12 months, Beijing has changed Hong Kong's semi-democracy into a facade, crushing any hope of full elections such as those prior to the 1997 handover. 

Hard negotiations and last-minute concessions had created hopes that Beijing would eventually grant universal suffrage to go with its hybrid democratic system centered around a Legislative Council (Legco) and ruled by a UK (and later Beijing-) appointed Chief Executive

In the 1990s, just before the handover, the number of directly elected Legco seats increased from 18 to 20. In 2000, the number became 24; in 2008 Legco grew to 70 seats with 30 directly elected and, in 2012, this number became 35, or half of the legislature. 

But Beijing ignored demands for universal suffrage and introduced strict vetting for CE candidats. These measures, and other mainland interference in Hong Kong's affairs, lead to an increasingly vocal opposition movement, culminating in the 'Umbrella' and 'Occupy Central' movements and, in 2019, to the massive demonstrations that often resulted in violence. 

Just last week, the Standing Committee of China's National People's Congress, Beijing's top law-making body, amended the Basic Law, and almost halved the number of directly elected Legco representatives, while requiring all candidates to be vetted for political loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.

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