Democracy advocates caught in Hong Kong’s biggest crackdown on opposition leaders called on their supporters not to lose hope before they were put under what could be years’ of detention under a new anti-sedition law.
The 47 activists were charged on Sunday with conspiracy to commit subversion by organizing or participating in an unofficial primary election in July aimed at helping the city’s pro-democracy politicians win a majority in Hong Kong’s legislature.
The charges, under a national security law imposed by Beijing on the semi-autonomous territory, will effectively lock up and silence the bulk of Hong Kong’s remaining opposition leaders, whose ranks had already been decimated by previous waves of arrests, detention, and self-exile.
Their bail hearing on Monday went on late into the night without a conclusion and looked set to continue overnight. In a departure from the city’s common-law tradition, people charged with offenses under the new national security law are denied bail by default.
The crackdown followed protests in 2019, triggered by a now-withdrawn extradition bill, that posed the greatest challenge to Beijing’s authority over the former British colony since it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. It has further dimmed hope that Beijing would honor its promise of eventually allowing the city’s 7 million population to choose its leader democratically.
The 47 advocates, including former lawmakers, elected district officials, and union leaders, were among more than 50 pro-democracy figures arrested on Jan. 6.
Former law professor Benny Tai, one of the organizers of the primary election, arrives at Ma On Shan police station in Hong Kong on Sunday, before he was charged with subversion. Photo: ISAAC LAWRENCE / AFP
Ahead of their first court hearing on Monday morning, hundreds of people gathered outside the West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court, dressed mostly in black to demonstrate their support for the activists.
It was a rare rally since the security law chilled street protests after it went into effect in June. Most prominent leaders of the city’s pro-democracy movement have either been taken into custody or fled to evade arrest. Joshua Wong, who is serving a 13.5-month jail term over an unauthorized protest in June 2019, was among those charged with conspiracy to subversion on Sunday. Nathan Law, who is in self-imposed exile in Britain, is also wanted in Hong Kong for violating the national security law.
Some residents, losing hope for a future of a democratic Hong Kong, have emigrated to democracies such as Taiwan, the United States and the United Kingdom.
But some of the activists facing prison time believe the city’s fate is far from being determined, predicting that the pro-democracy movement will come back in one form or another.
Fergus Leung, an elected district official who was among the 47 charged with subversion, told VICE World News in January that if he was jailed, the movement would be passed on to a new generation of activists.
“I’m sure there will be another wave of people, another batch of people, another batch of young politicians who will be better and braver than us and replace us,” the 23-year-old said.
“I always believe that if Hong Kong people can pass on the willingness to resist, the identity and history, the generations that are coming after us will be able to achieve what we are trying to achieve one day.”
The sense of defiance was shared by some of his fellow activists. Before they walked into police stations on Sunday to face charges that carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment, many left messages asking their supporters to carry on their fight.
“Our future is never determined,” Sam Cheung, a 27-year-old elected district official, said in a hand-written note that was posted on his Facebook page. “Ideas are bulletproof.”
Former lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki, 59, wrote in a Facebook post that Hong Kong people should support each other during the “political winter.” “Stay calm and carry on,” he said. “This one too shall pass.”
A similar hope for the future was shared at the end of the Umbrella Movement in 2014, when activists left banners saying “we will be back” before police cleared the protest sites. In 2019, on the fifth anniversary of the failed campaign for freer elections, demonstrators gathered around the government headquarters and declared “we are back.”
Some former protesters say they agree with the jailed activists that the movement will bounce back once again.
A 26-year-old IT worker, who declined to be named for fear of retaliation, said although most former protesters, including herself, were too scared to demonstrate right now, they still had the same beliefs and would act once the next opportunity emerges.
Another former protester, a designer in her 30s, said she planned to emigrate to the United Kingdom in April, but she would continue supporting Hong Kong’s fight for democracy.
“I believe all tyranny will end eventually, but it may take decades and the sacrifice of several generations,” she said. “The current political climate does not allow us to express anything, but it doesn’t mean we have given up. We will be back.”
Pro-democracy politicians Raymond Chan, Gwyneth Ho and Eddie Chu campaigned during the primary election in July. All three are facing subversion charges for participating in the election.Photo: May JAMES / AFP
The future of Hong Kong’s democracy movement is uncertain. Besides the national security law, the Chinese government is also looking to modify the city’s electoral system to ensure all officials and representatives are “patriots,” Xia Baolong, a top Beijing official in charge of Hong Kong, said in February.
Authorities are also overhauling the school curriculum to prevent children from joining future democracy campaigns. Students, for example, are required to undergo patriotic education and learn about national security in classes.
The pro-democracy leaders detained on Sunday prepared themselves for lengthy prison time. In a Stand News documentary on the activists’ last weekend before detention, 24-year-old Owen Chow got a new Buddhist tattoo and 41-year-old Lee Chi-yung bought a pair of laceless sneakers––detainees are not allowed to have shoelaces.
Fergus Leung, the former district councilor, said that he was worried about not being able to see his 10-year-old cat again or missing the important moments of his loved ones if he was jailed.
“She could be dead by the time I get out,” he said, referring to his cat, Kwai Kwai. “Maybe some of your friends or family pass away, you won’t be able to join their funeral; or your friends or your family get married, you won’t be able to join their wedding. When I think about this, I just can’t imagine how much I will miss.”
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