Hong Kong’s young democracy activists are being thrown in jail. But the movement should hold out hope for change, both locally and in mainland China.
Exactly twenty years since it reverted to Chinese rule, Hong Kong has its first political prisoners. A group of 16 young activists who took part in the unauthorized pro-democracy protests that began in 2014 were spared jail time after their first trial this past year. The judge sentenced the young protesters to varying lengths of community service, justifying his relatively mild decision by arguing that they had fought “for a noble cause.” However, the Hong Kong government, which brought the cases to court, was dissatisfied with the judge’s leniency. It saw nothing noble in the youngsters’ activism, and so it appealed.
By the time the cases reached the appellate court, all the defendants had already fulfilled the terms of the community service imposed on them. No matter: On August 15, the first group of 13 protesters—who had stormed the local legislature when it was holding a nighttime vote in the absence of the opposition to approve a highly controversial and disruptive development project—were sentenced to between 8 to 13 months in jail for “unlawful assembly.” This second, stunning sentence met with the approval of Hong Kong’s Department of Justice.
Two days later, three of the most renowned student activists were put on the stand again and received jail time: Joshua Wong, now 20, who was still a minor at the time of the protests that became known as the Umbrella Movement; Nathan Law, 24; and Alex Chow, 27.
The sentences have shocked many observers, both locally and internationally, for their harshness and vindictiveness. The same government that refused to talk to its young people through years of growing political polarization now seems to rejoice in jailing them. The young activists were taken to two maximum-security prisons on the very evening of the sentencing.
The prison terms imposed on the student leaders mark the true end of Hong Kong’s Occupy protests, which blocked key districts of Hong Kong for a full 79 days. But they are by no means the end of the story. Many more court cases linked to those protests are due to start in the days and weeks ahead, and the sentences already pronounced by the Court of Appeal make clear that more pro-democracy activists will wind up behind bars in Hong Kong.
The consequences for those found guilty are greater than the immediate jail terms: Not only will these young people have to go through life with criminal records, but by serving sentences of three or more months in jail, they are automatically barred from running for election for the next five years.
Further proof that both the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities do not want any of the Umbrella Movement activists to enter into Hong Kong’s political institutions is easy to find. Nathan Law, an activist who in September 2016 became Hong Kong’s youngest legislator, was disqualified from office for having taken the oath with an inflection in his voice that betrayed a lack of sincerity—or so the judge decreed. As with the recent case against the 16 youngsters, Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive at the time, formally brought the case against Law on behalf of the government—a sign of how firmly opposed the government is to engaging with Hong Kong’s new brand of pro-democracy activists. Law is now barred from the current legislature, and from the one that will be elected in 2021. He and the other jailed activists will not be allowed to run for election until 2026.
Hong Kong’s governance has been under strain ever since it ceased to be a British colony and reverted to Chinese rule in 1997. A semi-democratic territory with more than seven million inhabitants, it boasts a free internet and a free press, the right to form political parties and hold demonstrations, and certain voting rights (if not real universal suffrage). Its universities are still free to teach subjects deemed too sensitive on the Chinese mainland, freedom of religion is guaranteed to all, and non-government organizations are active in a variety of fields, including human rights and environmental protection. Yet Hong Kong offers no real means by which the citizenry can hold the authorities accountable. Political representation is strictly limited: Though Beijing rules Hong Kong under the increasingly hollow formulas of “One Country Two Systems” and “A high degree of autonomy,” it is too obsessed with control to let Hong Kong truly govern itself.
The territory is run by an Executive who is not elected by universal suffrage, but rather selected by a Chief Executive who is, in turn, selected by a group of 1,200 people whom the central authorities consider to be representative. The Chief Executive’s loyalty, thus, has always been to the central government—its direct boss—even while tasked with governing seven million people who are, in large part, descendants of those who fled the Chinese mainland and Communist rule.
Friction between the people and their rulers is unavoidable, and has only increased in the past twenty years. The mass demonstrations of 2014, which drew more than 100,000 people at their peak, can be seen as the overflow of frustration at the lack of agency and the means to address the people’s concerns.
The spark that ignited the lengthy occupation was the government’s betrayal of its promise of greater political representation. The first demonstrations erupted as Beijing published its proposal to reform the election process for the Chief Executive. After delaying the provision, sanctioned by the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s mini-constitution), that there must be universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive, the central authorities came up with what they deemed an acceptable compromise: Everyone would be allowed to vote, but only for a maximum of three candidates, pre-screened by the authorities. Sort of like Iranian democracy, in other words. That version of watered-down universal suffrage did not pass muster with Hong Kong’s pro-democracy politicians and their numerous supporters, including the majority of Hong Kong’s youth.
That this request for true universal suffrage should end, for now, with the jailing of student activists shows that, after twenty years of trying to square an impossible circle, Beijing has lost patience with Hong Kong. It has decided there is no point in trying to keep up appearances any longer. Despite China’s many efforts to favor those political parties belonging to the pro-Beijing camp—permitting them to receive funding from Chinese donors, mobilizing pro-Beijing grassroots groups, or allowing a number of their representatives to sit in high-level positions in the Chinese government, for example—Hong Kong’s hearts and minds have yet to be won over. On the contrary: The more China has attempted to assert its control, despite the velvet glove that initially covered its heavy hand, the more opposition it has encountered.
But the evolution of Hong Kong in the past twenty years also reflects the changes in China itself. The past few years have been particularly dire for those hoping for political reforms and greater openness in the country. The leadership of General Party Secretary Xi Jinping, who is also China’s President, has been marked by a growing assertiveness of China on the international scene, and the subsequent increase of its economic, diplomatic, and military clout. At the same time, political repression inside the country has been intensifying, reaching levels comparable to the immediate post-Tiananmen years—enhanced, though, by the greater scope for control offered by new technologies. It would have been naive to hope that a politically repressive China that has been jailing its own writers, dissidents, lawyers, feminists, labor rights activists, and many others would allow reform in Hong Kong. After all, Hong Kong enjoys freedoms that are unthinkable on the mainland, and its hunger for even greater freedoms comes across to unreconstructed autocrats as an unpatriotic lack of gratitude—and also as an example for mainland Chinese that the Politburo would prefer not to exist.
Nothing is over yet: The large demonstration that followed the jailing of the student activists (the biggest protest since the Umbrella Movement, with participation estimated at 22,000 by the police and at least three times that by the organizers) has shown that, even if depressed by the lack of tangible achievements, the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is still strong. It will need to remain so, hoping for the day in which China, too, will move toward democracy, or at least a less repressive society.