A Hong Kong court on Friday sentenced three young activists to up to five and a half years in prison for attacking a Chinese state media journalist, the toughest sentence yet given to participants of the 2019 anti-government unrest in the city.
The trio were found guilty of assaulting Fu Guohao, a reporter for the state-run tabloid Global Times, during a sit-in at Hong Kong’s airport in August 2019. Fu was zip-tied to a trolley and beaten after he failed to present press identification as demonstrators demanded. Protesters searched his bag and took out belongings including his Chinese travel documents and a T-shirt that said “I love HK police.”
The scenes, live-streamed to hundreds of thousands of viewers, prompted outrage in mainland China and spurred soul-searching among supporters of the Hong Kong protests. The Committee to Protect Journalists and the Hong Kong Journalists Association condemned the violence. The next morning, some protesters held up a banner at the airport with a message of apology.
The airport sit-in was part of a protest movement triggered by a now-withdrawn extradition bill that had increasingly resulted in frequent clashes with police. Protesters said the bill could erode freedoms in the former British colony, which returned to Chinese rule in 1997 as a semi-autonomous territory.
In mainland China, the attack stoked anger against the protest movement.
News about the Hong Kong protests had been heavily censored in the mainland, but pictures and videos showing the attack on Fu spread like wildfire.
On the night of the assault, Chinese internet users flooded their social media feeds with the message, “What a shame for Hong Kong.” What Fu said to his assailants, “I love Hong Kong police, you can beat me now,” became a viral catchphrase.
Mainland celebrities, including Mulan star Liu Yifei and popular band TFBoys, shared a state media post with the same phrase to back Hong Kong police’s crackdown on the protests. Hong Kong activists later organized a campaign to boycott the Disney film because of Liu’s support for the police.
Fu was eventually sent to the hospital, before returning to the mainland and receiving a 100,000 yuan ($15,500) award from the Global Times for his work in Hong Kong.
This week, Hong Kong’s District Court found Fu’s three attackers, Lai Yun-long, Pat Wai-fan and Ho Ka-lok, guilty of charges including rioting, assault and false imprisonment. On Friday, Ho was sentenced to five and a half years in prison. Lai was sentenced to five years and three months imprisonment, while Pat received a prison term of four years and three months.
The Global Times’ chief editor Hu Xijin called the sentencing “very gratifying.”
The assault on Fu and airport disruptions prompted heated discussions among Hong Kong protesters, with some worried that confrontational tactics would hurt the image of the movement.
Some protesters pressured journalists into deleting photos that could expose their identities and attacked individuals deemed as pro-government. In November 2019, a man was filmed being set on fire when he was arguing with a group of protesters. He survived his injuries. The protests died down in December.
Beijing has since cracked down on the movement by imposing a new national security law, which authorities say is partly aimed at ending such violence.
The law criminalizes a broad range of dissent deemed as endangering national security. Citing the law, Hong Kong police on Wednesday carried out mass arrests of opposition leaders described by a critic as a “reign of terror.”
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