If ever there was a demonstration of the Chinese government’s utter contempt for keeping its word, it is its arrest and prosecution of Martin Lee Chu-ming, the 82-year-old who was a fundamental architect of Hong Kong’s Basic Law designed – vainly – to guarantee that the former British crown colony would remain free of Beijing’s grip for 50 years.
Lee was given a suspended 11-month sentence, along with Margaret Ng, Ngoi-yee, 73, one of the territory’s staunchest democracy advocates and an opponent, among other things, of a controversial extradition bill designed to allow Hong Kong to detain and transfer fugitives including political ones from Taiwan and the Chinese mainland and elsewhere over the border.
The third person sentenced was Jimmy Lai Chee-Ying, the billionaire founder of Next Digital and the hugely popular anti-government Chinese-language Apple Daily. He is one of the main contributors to democracy in the city. He was given 14 months in prison, in marked contrast to the two lawyers, who received suspended sentences.
Lai could be considered a special case. He has been a marked man by Beijing for decades, since he was forced out of his successful Giordano apparel empire after he insulted Chinese Premier Li Peng in 1994, calling him a “turtle’s egg.” He later found Next Media, which has published pro-democracy organs in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. He has been a visible presence at huge demonstrations that wracked the city for months, both in 2014 and 2020.
“The sentencing was fairly mild, in line with existing penalties for the charges. There are more serious charges leveled against Jimmy Lai. This is just the start of his judicial encounter,” a British consultant told Asia Sentinel.
Chinese authorities argue that they are merely bringing law and order to a city that had broken its commitment to it, conveniently forgetting that the 79-day Umbrella Movement emerged over the refusal to allow independent candidates for Chief Executive in the 2017 election. Beijing’s own picks have been embarrassing failures. They included Tung Chee-hwa, who was driven from office because he was ineffective; Donald Tsang, who was indicted for taking favors; CY Leung, who earned universal enmity from the citizenry; and Carrie Lam, who has toadied to Beijing on all matters to universal disdain. Allowing the city to pick its own executive might not have been a bad idea.
They forget that the violent demonstrations of 2020 were an attempt to forestall the extradition bill and growing concerns over Beijing’s clampdown on the city, which is in large part peopled by the descendants of those who swam down the Pearl River escape from China during the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Nonetheless, that fully-justified protest hasn’t gone over well in Beijing, which foisted two apparatchiks, Luo Huining, 65, to take charge of the Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong, and Xia Baolong, 67, to head the Hong Kong & Macau Affairs Office. Their mission was to tame Hong Kong. They have been depressingly successful.
What is incomprehensible is how the Hong Kong legal system, from police to lawyers to judges, which existed largely to dispense even-handed if imperfect justice for 156 years of British colonial rule and 23 years of quasi-democracy after the colony was handed back to China in 1997, has been so thoroughly subverted to serve the whims of Xi Jinping in Beijing.
The ostensible reason is that they are hewing to the sweeping national security law that was forced onto Hong Kong on June 30, 2020, that killed democracy outright after it had been wounded by a thousand cuts over the previous 23 years, destroying the key elements of the principle that were supposed to survive until 2047.
As Asia Sentinel reported upon the law’s implementation – ironically on the day the territory was supposed to celebrate the One Country-Two Systems enactment – the law’s 61 articles were aimed to address threats to national security from “subversion, secession, terrorism” and “collusion with a foreign country or external elements.”
The law was clearly aimed at journalists, academics, politicians, and anybody else interested in preserving Hong Kong’s independence. A huge crowd took to the streets to protest –illegally – but it wasn’t long before China appears to have cowed the Hong Kong police, the judiciary, and even the city’s business community, by overwhelming force, much as the Anschluss was imposed on the people of Austria by the Nazis in 1938. It applies not only to permanent residents but temporary ones and people "from outside who are not permanent residents of Hong Kong."
But indeed while the law is ugly, that doesn’t explain why the legal establishment has so thoroughly turned on those who were their partners for so many decades. It doesn’t explain why police appeared to have stood aside during a mob attack on pro-democracy protesters at Yuen Long railway station in 2019, one of the most controversial and divisive chapters in last year’s anti-government protests.
Some 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists remain in prison, awaiting sentencing for nothing more than exercising their duties as elected officials. Fifteen of the 47 were granted bail in March but they remain in jail pending appeal by the prosecution. The language used by the judge in subsequent hearings – a Hong Kong judge, not one brought in from China – is a clear indication that the 47 probably will follow Lee, Ng, and Lai into longer sentences.
The crime on the part of the defendants was to run an unofficial "primary" election to pick opposition candidates for 2020 legislative elections, which the government has since postponed.
Chinese and Hong Kong officials have claimed the primary was an attempt to overthrow the government.
It actually followed the 2019 district elections that shell-shocked both the Hong Kong and Beijing governments. The pan-democrats and independents responded by winning 388 seats – 86 percent of the total – giving them control of 17 of the 18 district councils. Voter turnout was a record 71 percent compared to 47 percent in 2015. The Democratic Alliance for the Betterment & Progress of Hong Kong, known universally as the DAB, the largest pro-Beijing party, fielded 181 candidates to win only 21. The other pro-Beijing party, The Federation of Trade Unions (FTU) salvaged 4 seats from a 62-candidate list. Another election was simply not possible for a dictatorial government.
Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the United States, last year told the Aspen Security Forum that “the city is quite destabilized. People feel it’s no longer a very safe place to live or do business.”
But it was no longer a safe place to do business because Beijing had so badly botched its stewardship of what had been one of the world’s most successful cities, with the second-highest GDP in Asia after Singapore. But more than that, it was a city that was vibrant if not outright piratical in its demeanor. It has been crushed.