Hong Kong handed down charges against two dozen pro-democracy activists on Thursday, August 6, for taking part in a vigil commemorating the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.
This year, the June 4 vigil was banned by Hong Kong police for the first time in the city’s history—police said that the event would violate coronavirus restrictions on large social gatherings. In mainland China, such gatherings are banned and discussions about Tiananmen Square are censored on social media.
Tens of thousands defied the ban and attended the vigil anyway.
Hong Kong police said on Thursday that a total of 19 men and five women ages 23-69 were charged for knowingly taking part in an “unauthorized assembly.” The group includes leading pro-democracy activists and opposition figures including Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Lester Shum.
According to Bloomberg, local media reported that they are scheduled to appear in court on September 15.
“I feel the pressure—I am overloaded with charges,” Lee Chuk-yan, a former lawmaker and an organizer of the annual Hong Kong vigil, said in an interview with the New York Times on Thursday. “Even if you’re peaceful and nonviolent, they’d still want to stifle and suppress peaceful assemblies.”
The charges against the prominent pro-democracy figures are being seen by observers as yet another move to eliminate political opposition in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
Sam Goodman, a senior policy advisor at the UK-based rights group Hong Kong Watch, told VICE News that these charges should be considered as part of a wider campaign by the Hong Kong and Chinese governments to “swap away the basic freedoms and the way life that Hong Kongers have enjoyed” since the United Kingdom handed over sovereignty of the city to China in 1997.
Goodman said that these charges, along with the recent arrests made under the contentious new national security law, the disqualification of 12 pro-democracy candidates from running in this year’s legislative election, and the postponement of the election are part of a wide-reaching strategy by the Communist Party of China to “squash dissent in the city and dismantle its ‘one country, two systems’ policy.”
Human Rights Watch China director Sophie Richardson told VICE News that the charges reflect a “growing intolerance for peaceful assembly and expression.”
“The charges may be against pro-democracy figures, but what’s really on trial is Hong Kong authorities’ commitment to the rule of law,” Richardson said.
“Clearly, the regime plans to stage another crackdown on the city's activists by all means,” Wong said on Facebook.
The charges come a week after the Hong Kong government announced that 12 pro-democracy candidates, including Wong, were banned from running in this year’s Legislative Council election, which has been postponed due to the coronavirus. The government said that individuals who advocate for Hong Kong independence or object to the city’s new national security law would be unable to “genuinely” perform the duties of being a Legislative Council member.
On Friday, Wong challenged his disqualification from the local elections in court.
Hong Kong Watch fellow Luke de Pulford says Hong Kong’s current government, led by leader Carrie Lam, has been “completely unpredictable.”
“But there is a thread running through everything: control by fear,” he said.