The Hong Kong government’s recent decision to jail three prominent pro-democracy activists, Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow, for their roles in the 2014 Umbrella Protests comes as a clear, if somewhat delayed, rebuke against the movement. It comes as the latest in a protracted struggle between pro-democracy activists and a Beijing-backed government, culminating in something of a stalemate.
Overt, often violent, responses as employed by Beijing in the past have only magnified uprisings. Clearly, this time round China hoped a more careful yet relentless effort would quell the movement. This approach, though obviously preferable, is still proving ultimately ineffective.
The treaty agreed upon at the cessation of British rule in Hong Kong in 1997 declared the city a Special Administrative Region of China for the subsequent fifty years. Hong Kong was to be governed by the Basic Law, which defined a ‘one country, two systems’ policy that promised the city relative autonomy in comparison to Mainland China. This legitimization of freedom has become a point of pride amongst Hong Kongers – a powerful and fiercely protected shared value.
Yet as the years have progressed China has slowly increased its control over public life, eventually resulting in an August 2014 decision that stipulated that the Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, the highest seat of authority in the city, would be appointed only with the approval of the Chinese government. This runs contrary to earlier assurances to move towards universal suffrage. The result was a surge of anti-Beijing sentiment amongst the local population, with hundreds of thousands participating in an almost three month long protest calling for, amongst other things, total universal suffrage in Hong Kong.
The aforementioned trio emerged as prominent figures of this movement, which eventually became known as the Umbrella Revolution. The Beijing-backed government has since remained unmoved, offering no concessions, and recent years have witnessed increasingly astute interference by Beijing officials in major factions of Hong Kong society. From local government, down to weekly satirical magazines, fears were precipitated that the autonomy and freedom the city has enjoyed for two decades may now be tapering.
Over the past two years the movement has only strengthened, as have its leaders. Joshua Wong and Nathan Law now head up a pro-democracy political party they themselves founded, called Demosisto. Government response and efforts have stayed subtle but persistent, and this recent jailing comes as the latest in a long line of increasingly overt and public attempts at stymieing further pro-democracy action.
The announcement of the sentencing drew a crowd of almost 20,000 protesters who came out in support of the three activists, and an independent fund has been set up to raise money for the jailed activists. Indeed, given the elevated platform of the trio, coupled with the current tense climate, this was almost unsurprising, and only further reveals the widespread unwillingness to back down even in the face of direct provocation.
The fact is that the government has chosen, time and time again, to remain partially in the shadows when it comes to its actions, and its reasoning behind them. The evidence is clear, from secret disappearances to gradual subtle censorship. The process and implications of the activists’ imprisonment are similarly translucent, fueling only controversy.
For example, when the three were arrested, a sympathetic judge initially sentenced them to much lighter sentences, claiming that they were fighting for a “noble cause” and were therefore harmless in their intentions. Yet this sentence was later overturned by the Hong Kong Department of Justice, who favoured a much stronger sentence.
Whilst on the one hand this seems a tactic to present the three as moral wrongdoers, claiming that they had been violent by entering a closed government facility, and had therefore violated the city’s rule of law, there is also another element of the city’s judicial system worth noting: Hong Kong law dictates that any person sentenced to over three months in prison is prohibited from running for public office for five years.
Given their current momentum, it seems a perfect method to halt their political and social influence. It also seems that China is trying to prolong the impasse, hoping for the issue to turn stale before further progress may be made on the pro-democracy front.
This is not the first time that the government has used ‘rule of law’ as a reason for persecution. In October 2016, several pro-democracy members-elect of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong staged a protest during their oath-taking ceremony by arriving draped in Hong Kong flags, and choosing to omit certain elements of the oath.
They were disqualified, again on the grounds of having violated the rule of law, accused of purposely propagating discord, as those in 2014 were too. Increasingly, the principle of rule of law is used as a scapegoat, directly pitting the principle of freedom of expression against that of rule of law – the government seems to suggest that the two cannot coexist. Their actions come as an attack on the valued one country, two systems policy.
Further, such noise and suspicion surrounding China does little to improve Hong Kongers’ sentiments towards the Chinese government, sentiments that are only more soured given international media coverage of the issue that lionizes pro-democracy activists. Joshua Wong was nominated as Time Person of the Year in 2014, and a recent New York Times article referred to Beijing’s latest action as a “brazen crackdown”.
Such enveloping and global gratification makes activists such as Joshua Wong into martyrs, and amplifies the spectre of Beijing, further galvanizing people against it, and further sowing divide. The issue thus becomes oversimplified, black and white – an us versus them.
Given the long simmering resentment Hong Kongers have held towards the Mainland, it is unlikely that the government’s slow drip-feed tactic (however artfully executed) will be enough to kill these sentiments. It just makes clear that their government is not on their side, and the issue is too far-gone now, leaving the city with an increasingly uncertain future.