Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement in the Dock

Hong Kong’s claim to have a politically independent judiciary has been questioned in the past, but seldom more so than in the wake of the conviction this week of nine defendants for their role in the 2014 Occupy Central campaign, better known as the Umbrella movement.

The movement saw five weeks of peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins involving up to one million people over the central government’s refusal to live up to its 1997 pledge of universal suffrage which paralyzed part of central Hong Kong and hugely embarrassed the government and Beijing.

While involvement in civil disobedience can expect some retribution, the scale of the charges was remarkable. The sentences won’t be handed down for another two weeks but all nine face the possibility of lengthy jail terms. They include two members of the Legislative Council who could be disbarred as a result, further thinning the ranks of opposition members already depleted by cases brought by the government, backed, in one case, by a post-facto ruling from the National People’s Congress (NPC) in Beijing.

The cases against the nine can only be considered an act of vengeance by a government following Beijing’s orders to strike hard against dissent and the call for greater democracy. The Umbrella protests had initially been sparked by an NPC Standing Committee ruling which effectively put an end to the hope for greater democracy in the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive and legislature.

That it has taken four and a half years from the time of the movement to these convictions has shown a government eager to find charges which could carry sentences of up to seven years. Instead of charges of unlawful assembly or obstruction, relatively minor offenses, the government finally came up with rarely-used “public nuisance” charges. Nor was it content with simple charges. It piled “conspiracy to incite” and conspiracy to incite others to incite” on to them.

This verbal double magnification of “public nuisance,” itself an ill-defined term, enabled the government to come up with charges which add to potential long jail terms.

Whether or not these are imposed remains to be seen but the guilty verdict by a district court judge on most of the various conspiracy and incitement charges suggests that everything has so far moved as the government, the Justice department and Beijing desired.

That the Umbrella movement found such huge support among the public, whether measured by the number of participants or responses to opinion surveys, seemed to make matters worse as far as the judge was concerned. The message: The stronger the opposition, the greater the demand for democracy, the more the law had to be used to crush it.

The judge also dismissed the suggestion that the surge in mass participation followed a tear gas attack by police on the original modest-size demonstration. This judgment ran contrary to many news reports at the time which ascribed the size of the demonstrations to the large-scale involvement of students who were on the street two days before the official Occupy leaders began their action, and then a wider public responding to what they viewed as excessive force against a legitimate if technically illegal demonstration against the clamp on democratization. At its peak, demonstrators numbered 100,000 and over the whole length of the event probably well over one million took part.

The nine convicted are the original three founders of the movement, 75-year-old clergyman Chu You-ming, Dr. Chan King-man, 60, and Hong Kong University academic Benny Tai You-ting, 55.

The others were Democratic Party legislator for Hong Kong Island Tanya Chan Shiu Ka-chung, vice-chairman of the League of Social Democrats Raphael Wong Ho-ming, former Democratic Party legislator Lee Wing-tat, and then students Eason Chung Yiu-wa and Tommy Cheung Sau-ying.

Coming just after the government proposed a bill allowing extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland, the verdicts raised the level of local and international concern at the weakening of Hong Kong’s autonomy, drawing widespread criticism including from former governor Chris Patten. It also comes a time when United Front efforts are underway, including through tame media, to limit commemoration in Hong Kong of the June 4 Massacre 30 years ago.

There remain however two issues which will indicate how far the judiciary will go down the government road. The first is the nature of the sentences. The second will be the response of higher-level courts which verdicts and probably sentences will likely be appealed. But the depressing reality seems to be that Hong Kong, for more than 165 years a bastion of the rule of law, is taking on the coloration of Beijing, where political show trials are a regular occurrence.