Hong Kong’s travesty of a show trial begins

Joshua Wong, Benny Tsai, Claudia Mo, Au Nok-hin, Ray Chan, Tat Cheng, Sam Cheung, Andrew Chiu, Owen Chow, Eddie Chu, Andy Chui, Ben Chung, Gary Fan, Frankie Fung, Kalvin Ho, Gwyneth Ho, Kwok Ka-ki, Lam Cheuk-ting, Mike Lam, Nathan Lau, Lawrence Lau, Ventus Lau, Shun Lee, Fergus Leung, Leung Kwok-hung, Kinda Li, Hendrick Lui, Gordon Ng, Ng Kin-wai, Carol Ng, Ricky Or, Michael Pang, Jimmy Sham, Lester Shum, Sze Tak-loy, Roy Tam, Jeremy Tam, Tam Tak-chi, Andrew Wan, Prince Wong, Henry Wong, Helena Wong, Wu Chi-wai, Alvin Yeung, Clarisse Yeung, Winnie Yu, Tiffany Yuen.

These are the names of all 47 people appearing in court today in Hong Kong. Remember their names. They are all people with families, people who had dreams and ambitions that were curtailed as Hong Kong went from being one of Asia’s most liberal cities to a tightly controlled state in just a matter of years. Amongst them are former politicians, democracy leaders, scholars, health care workers, even a disability activist. These people are the best of us and we could be them tomorrow. Rights are fragile – their examples are case in point.

The 47 are accused of “conspiracy to commit subversion” over the holding of unofficial pre-election primaries in July 2020. The primaries aimed to select the strongest candidates among Hong Kong’s then robust pro-democracy movement to run against the CCP-aligned parties. Until then, unofficial primary polls had been a common feature in Hong Kong political landscape, but in the wake of the draconian National Security Law which was passed at the end of June that year, Beijing labelled the democracy camp’s event illegal. In dawn raids on 6 January 2021, the organisers, candidates and campaigners were arrested. Many have been in jail since, denied bail.

The Hong Kong government labels them dangerous criminals and for that they could be behind bars for anything from three years to their whole lives. They are anything but.

The trial is a sham. There is no jury, going against a long tradition in Hong Kong’s legal system, which was established in line with British common law. The judges are handpicked by Beijing. There are reports that some who are taking up the 39 seats reserved for the public in the main courtroom don’t even know who is on trial.

The 47 are walking into court with their guilt presumed. Twenty-nine have already pleaded guilty. With no faith in the legal system, their only hope is a more lenient sentence. Ex-district councillor Ng Kin-wai told the three judges: “I did not succeed in subverting the state power. I plead guilty.” That he kowtowed is understandable; that a minority will not is a sign of how remarkable and resilient these people are. Former legislator Leung Kwok-hung said that there was “no crime to admit” while reiterating his not guilty plea.

This is a show trial masquerading as justice. It is a joke. But to laugh at this brings trouble too. Judge Andrew Chan told members of the public to “respect” the hearing after several jeered at the guilty pleas.

Outside court police presence is heavy. Dissent is being weeded out. Members of the League of Social Democrats, which is one of Hong Kong’s last active pro-democracy groups, turned up to protest and were reportedly pushed away. The chairperson of the group, Chan Po-ying, said “[I] hope reporters are all filming this” as police officers shoved her.

Fortunately reporters are there and are covering it. Hong Kong Free Press, for example, will be running regular on-the-ground updates – follow them here. This is not an easy landscape to operate in. According to reports, some people have warned others against speaking to the press, while journalists have been filmed and photographed by onlookers.

We are on day one of the trial. It is expected to last 90 days, with sentencing to follow after. Alongside Jimmy Lai’s trial – now postponed to the Autumn – it is the biggest and most important trial Hong Kong has seen in years, if not decades. And yet visit a Chinese or Hong Kong-run newspaper and it is buried under other news, if it’s reported at all. They want to forget them. We won’t allow that. Remember their names; better still, say their names out-loud.

We repeat – Joshua Wong, Benny Tsai, Claudia Mo, Au Nok-hin, Ray Chan, Tat Cheng, Sam Cheung, Andrew Chiu, Owen Chow, Eddie Chu, Andy Chui, Ben Chung, Gary Fan, Frankie Fung, Kalvin Ho, Gwyneth Ho, Kwok Ka-ki, Lam Cheuk-ting, Mike Lam, Nathan Lau, Lawrence Lau, Ventus Lau, Shun Lee, Fergus Leung, Leung Kwok-hung, Kinda Li, Hendrick Lui, Gordon Ng, Ng Kin-wai, Carol Ng, Ricky Or, Michael Pang, Jimmy Sham, Lester Shum, Sze Tak-loy, Roy Tam, Jeremy Tam, Tam Tak-chi, Andrew Wan, Prince Wong, Henry Wong, Helena Wong, Wu Chi-wai, Alvin Yeung, Clarisse Yeung, Winnie Yu, Tiffany Yuen.

Beijing is rewriting Hong Kong’s handover history. We must not allow it

Hong Kong

Since the handover of Hong Kong to Beijing on 1 July 1997, the annual march to mark the date became a rallying point for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activitists. Photo: Etan Liam/Flickr

Residents of Hong Kong are going to be given “fortune bags” this month. Millions of people in the city of 7.4 million will receive bags containing a mug, a pen and a fan. The souvenirs will be customised to celebrate 25 years since the handover of Hong Kong from British rule to Beijing rule, which took place on 1 July 1997. This is just one of many planned initiatives to mark the date. Others include the opening of the Hong Kong Palace Museum, modelled on a museum of the same name in Beijing. There’ll be exhibitions, a gala, performances – you name it, they’re doing it. On a less grand scale, an exhibition of photographs from 1997 has been on display at a local Hong Kong art gallery this spring, a collage of smiling faces and waving China flags. A book accompanies the exhibition.

All the initiatives serve to hammer home the message – “this day is a celebration. Do not say otherwise.” The Chinese government is effectively stage managing the 1 July anniversary.

It’s hardly unusual for a state to want to preside over a message of overwhelming positivity. In the UK, we’ve all just emerged from the extravaganza that was the Queen’s Jubilee, a jamboree that sidestepped any of the scandals surrounding the Queen and Royal Family, as well as some people’s misgivings about the concept of monarchy.

But Beijing is going one step further. Not only are they ramping up good stories, they’re papering over the bad. Inconvenient truths are being written out. New Hong Kong textbooks, for example, will say that the city was never a British colony. Instead, the books will teach students the British “only exercised colonial rule” in Hong Kong. Even the police are being made to change their march. According to the South China Morning Post, the Hong Kong Police Force and other disciplined services are being ordered to move in the Chinese “goose-step” fashion at all important events from 1 July, over the current British-style.

Such distinctions might seem curious, even pedantic – “colony” versus “colonial rule”, what difference you might ask?  – but they’re in fact highly political. Beijing is suggesting an unbroken line of sovereignty with Hong Kong. Such a narrative criss-crosses with the one it has used in Xinjiang and Tibet, both of which have been denied past independence in order to justify current Chinese control. As George Orwell famously wrote “who controls the past controls the future”. That is China’s aim.

In Hong Kong, Beijing has been building up to this moment for decades, laying the foundations even before the handover took place. Jonathan Mirsky, East Asia editor of The Times in the 1990s, described the situation in Index six months before the handover: news channels reporting on China were doing so in a “vapid or grovelling” manner; organisations were expected to plan celebrations for the handover. He predicted a dire future, and he was right. Freedom of speech and assembly – the core freedoms that underpin democracies – have been whittled away to the point of non-existence. Index has reported on Hong Kong on and off since our creation in 1972. In recent years this reporting has been more “on”.

The passage of the National Security Law in 2020 entrenched the worst excesses of rule by Beijing. It effectively made criticism of government illegal. Protests surrounding the handover that have taken place annually since 1997 have now become too high-stakes.

But we don’t have to play by Beijing rules over here. We can point out that Hong Kong was, in fact, a British colony. That’s not something to be proud of, but it is well established. The rewriting of history is happening with alarming regularity in China (and elsewhere for that matter) and we should call out this worrying trend.

We should also talk about what has happened to freedoms in Hong Kong since 1997. Events like an anniversary are excellent moments to spotlight a cause and concentrate conversations.

Let’s use the 25th year to really raise our voice. In so doing let’s forge connections with those actively campaigning for Hong Kong freedoms, people like Nathan Law and Benedict Rogers and organisations like Hong Kong Watch and the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong. We have more power when united. Let’s continue to speak up for those who can’t right now because they’ve been silenced – Jimmy Lai, Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and the many more currently in prison in Hong Kong simply for demanding basic rights. And let’s pressurise our own governments to do the same.

Ultimately people in Hong Kong should be able to commemorate 1 July however they want, be it with great fanfare and fireworks or holding up a poster and shouting out against Chinese government repression. A pluralistic society is one to celebrate, not one that’s afraid of its own history.

Hong Kong’s National Security Law reaches the UK

Hong Kong Watch’s Benedict Rogers. Credit: Hong Kong Watch

Benedict Rogers was surprised when he heard that he’d been accused by police in Hong Kong of jeopardising China’s national security and threatened with jail time under the draconian National Security Law. The chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, a charity that campaigns for human rights in the former British colony, told Index that while he knew there was an extra-territorial element to the law, he didn’t believe “they’d go this far”.

Three weeks ago Rogers learnt that the website attached to Hong Kong Watch had been blocked in Hong Kong. After making enquiries about why he received letters back charging him under the law.

“I guess the letters I received were an answer to the inquiry,” he said.

Passed in the summer of 2020, the National Security Law caused global outcry in its implications for freedoms in Hong Kong as it effectively made any form of dissent illegal. But it was not just the punishment for dissent within its borders that caused alarm – even those outside Chinese territory could be charged with breaking it. Index wrote about the law at the time, calling it a “devastating blow to Hong Kong’s autonomy”.

Approaching two years since its passage, scores of arrests and prison sentences have been handed out to protesters and journalists in Hong Kong. This though is the first time the law has been used against an advocacy group outside of Hong Kong.

Rogers is a British human rights activist and journalist based in London. In addition to his work at Hong Kong Watch, he is co-founder and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party’s human rights commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and an advisor to the World Uyghur Congress.

The action is a clear attempt by Beijing to make anyone, anywhere feel vulnerable. They want to reinforce the message that no corner of the globe is beyond their reach, something we have been reporting on recently in our series Banned by Beijing. That it comes on the back of the Hong Kong Watch website being shut down is another worrying sign that Beijing is trying to shape Hong Kong – which does not have a Great Firewall – in its own image.

Rogers says he is not concerned for his own safety and that he has already taken measures to protect those he does communicate with inside Hong Kong, measures that he will take even further now.  He sees it as another “sad deterioration in the Hong Kong situation”.

Today our fears lie with all those who want to promote respect for free speech and human rights within China and Hong Kong and might not do so following this message. People in Hong Kong itself already live with the daily fear of repercussions as they see more and more of their friends, relatives and associates being arrested and jailed. We don’t want this fear to infect those outside, to stop them honestly reporting on the situation and communicating with those inside. We need a united front to campaign against Beijing’s actions.

We are also fearful for those in other authoritarian countries around the world. The move comes less than a fortnight after Russia passed its “fake news” law to imprison anyone inside Russia criticising the war in Ukraine. Putin passed this law overnight. We fear he could look to Beijing and decide to extend it to critical voices outside the country, who are playing such a crucial role in revealing the horrors of Ukraine and holding him to account.

Echoing our concerns, Lord Patten of Barnes, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and a patron of Hong Kong Watch, said:

“This is another disgraceful example of Mr Putin’s friends in Beijing and their quislings in Hong Kong trying not only to stamp out freedom of expression and information in Hong Kong but also to internationalise their campaign against evidence, freedom and honesty.”

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has called it “unjustifiable”.

“Attempting to silence voices globally that speak up for freedom and democracy is unacceptable and will never succeed,” she said.

Rogers, who spoke to Index in 2017 about threatening letters he received from Hong Kong to his London home (also sent to his neighbours’), says the last four to five years has seen a succession of threats including letters and emails, with this action being the latest and most extreme. Still, he says he will not let this attack silence him.

“We’re not going to take the website down. We’re needed more than ever,” he told Index.

Lament for Hong Kong

In October 1999, a crowd gathered outside Buckingham Palace to jeer at Jiang Zemin, then China’s president as he ate dinner inside with Queen Elizabeth. “Free Tibet!” and “Nazi China,” they shouted. For Jiang, who was known to be sensitive to criticism (he had earlier told Swiss lawmakers that they had “lost a good friend” after they declined to quash similar protests) it was surely an uncomfortable moment. It was also a sign of a robust democratic principle: the right to peaceful assembly and protest.

I lived in Guangzhou at the time and watched coverage of Jiang’s UK visit on Hong Kong terrestrial TV, beamed from across the border about 130km away. But at just the point where cameras panned over the protestors and their placards, the screen was abruptly replaced with a test card. I later learned that beetle-browed apparatchiks spent their days waiting to pounce on any broadcast that offended mainland sensibilities. Like the Stalinist cult of Soviet Russia, China could not endure the friction of free expression.

Censorship this crude can be grimly funny. Blanking TV screens is an electronic update of photographic ‘retouching’, when Soviet bureaucrats diligently scratched out images of political figures who had been purged or executed by the regime of Joseph Stalin. In the late 1980s, British television producers hired voice actors to precisely mimic Sinn Fein politicians in a creative attempt to work around a government ban on terrorist spokespersons. But it was hard to find much humor in China’s didactic prohibitions, except for the unintentional kind.

I taught at the Guangdong University of Technology until 2000. In the evenings I would traipse to the university internet centre, a crowded room full of battered old computers to send emails home. Large signs on the wall warned against browsing for anything to do with politics, religion or sex. In the classroom I was also instructed to avoid those taboos. It was made known to me that a cadre from the Communist Party was in the classroom ready to flee to the dean should I break the rules, for which I would be fired and sent home.

The state graduated from these primitive attempts to restrict internet searches to erecting the Great Chinese Internet Firewall, one of the world’s most sophisticated systems of online censorship. YouTube and Facebook were banned in 2009, later Google, Dropbox and Wikipedia. Foreign newspapers (including my own – The Economist and The Independent) and the New York Times have been repeatedly blocked, domestic journalists imprisoned, foreign journalists intimidated or kicked out.

One of the bleakest developments of the last decade has been watching the dead-hand of this official repression seep into Hong Kong. The province was hardly paradise – crowded, venal and with eye-popping disparities in wealth. Nevertheless, its cinemas, newspapers and bookstores did not live in fear of being gagged or shut down. One of the first books I bought there was The Private Life of Chairman Maoa memoir by Mao’s doctor Li Zhisui, which chronicles, among other things, the Chinese leader’s alleged fondness for sex with young girls.

Long before the National Security Law (NSL) dropped like a dirty bomb in the summer of 2020, bookstores and public libraries were removing critical titles about Mao, history, the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre and the democracy movement. The closures last year of the anti-communist Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s largest-selling newspaper, and online website Stand, which scrubbed all its old articles, are only the tallest trees to be toppled by the law.

Programmes have been cancelled and reporters sacked, moved or banned from covering press events. Foreign journalists, such as Aaron McNicholas, a former Bloomberg reporter from the same Irish town as myself (Clones) have had their visa applications rejected (he was forced to return home in September 2020). Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), the public service station I used to watch while in Guangdong, has pulled back from interviews and removed archives that might trigger the censors.

Self-censorship is the worst kind, said the Czech-born movie director Milos Forman, because it twists spines, destroys character and turns us into hypocrites. It’s also the “goal” of all repressive regimes, said one Hong Kong-based journalist. “You start to question yourself whether that story you’re researching is still doable in light of the NSL,” said the journalist who requested anonymity. “They can slice and dice that law in whatever way they wish, and if you cross the line, you can be arrested and denied bail.”

More reporters are getting the message. In the last month, over half a dozen have reportedly quit the newsroom of The South China Morning Post, once one of the crowns in Rupert Murdoch’s empire, now owned by Alibaba, a Chinese internet company run by billionaire Jack Ma. Ma disappeared from public view for three months in November 2020 after he criticised the country’s creaking financial system. Many will have surely heeded the lesson: if China’s richest man can be brought to heel, who cannot.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, has punctuated this historic assault on a first-world media with a series of surreal statements denying it is happening. In January, she said her government did “not seek to crack down on press freedom.” Last year, in a Trumpian touch, she said her government was the “worst victim” of fake news, the prelude to what many fear will be more legislation targeting the internet.

As the scale of the government’s ambitions to throttle free expression became clear, Lam insisted that journalists were safe – as long as they obeyed the security law. Of course, as media watchdog Reporters Without Borders noted, the scope of the four new offences that can be wielded against journalists – secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers – is so “deliberately vague and catch-all” as to make all but government stenography a dangerous proposition (life imprisonment is the mandated punishment).

Beyond the silenced reporters, activists and politicians, various sectors of Hong Kong society, such as unions, are “quietly shutting down”, said the anonymous journalist, citing “fear of repercussions”.

“That bedrock of civil society is slowly – actually quickly – being eroded,” he said.

One of the last public memorials to the Tiananmen incident – a statue of piled-up corpses to commemorate those killed – was removed from the University of Hong Kong in December. “Hong Kong has now become a place where those who speak out against such draconian measures await the midnight knock,” writes Michael C Davis, a professor of law at the university until 2016.

David Law, who also taught at the university but who recently left Hong Kong, says the removal of the ‘pillar of shame’ was a shock. “It isn’t necessarily the most telling event but it is the most visible, something that people saw and remember and can relate to as a common point of reference – literally a landmark,” he says. “It has been valuable for getting people to literally see what is happening. Symbols do that.”

I was last in Hong Kong in 2013, on a book tour, giving a couple of talks on the Fukushima nuclear accident that had occurred two years previously. I had been invited by activists campaigning for the closure of the Daya Bay Nuclear Power Plant across the border in Guangdong. I wrote back to them this month as I was researching this article, asking if the new law had affected their activities, but I got no reply. It’s possible they hadn’t received my mail – or that they cannot respond. That’s what happens when everyone is afraid.

Pondering all this over the last week, I recalled gleefully smuggling my Mao book back across the border in late 1999 and debating with my wife whether to teach it in journalism class, which I eventually did.

I’d love to frame this decision, which broached two of three of the university’s banned topics, as a daring jab at the censors, or a pedagogic exercise in challenging perspectives – but I was mostly curious about the reaction of my students. They had been taught a precise formulation on Mao’s rule – 70% good, 30% bad – a calculation that included nothing about his sexual proclivities. In the end, one or two were furious at this new information but if the dean got wind of it, I never heard. Perhaps the university was short of teachers.

Or perhaps the students knew already. One of the surprises of being in China was the knowing cynicism and dry humour that peppered chats about the country’s rulers. It would be good to be able to talk again to my now middle-aged students about how such cynicism finds expression in the age of Xi Jinping. As we know, attempts to use online euphemisms and code, such as images of Winnie the Pooh to lampoon the tubby tyrant have been squashed, proving again that despotism and humorlessness are natural partners, and, as British contrarian Christopher Hitchens once said, censorship inevitably degenerates into absurdity and corruption.