The political crackdown in Hong Kong continues and shows no signs of abating as we move into the New Year.
During 2020 the challenges of the Covid pandemic collided with massive political and social unrest, leaving most Hong Kongers exhausted - and a pro-democracy movement disillusioned and searching for a way forward. Journalist Tommy Walker has the latest.
For Beijing, 2020 has been about asserting its power in Hong Kong, and taking control of the streets, as well as silencing its critics.
Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai has now been formally charged with “foreign collusion” under the city’s National Security Law whilst being held in custody on a separate charge.
A strident critic of the Chinese Communist Party, Jimmy Lai also founded the popular Giordano clothing brand.
Lai, who turned 73 whilst in prison earlier this month, is perhaps most notably the multi-millionaire king-pin of Hong Kong’s newspaper Apple Daily.
He has often been outspoken against Beijing in the past and is regarded as one of the most influential pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.
The Police statement detailed the new, and serious, charge against him: “After an in-depth investigation by National Security Department of Hong Kong Police, a 73-year-old man was charged with an additional offense of ‘Collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security,’ it said.
Prosecutors in court targeted Lai’s own commentaries in his newspaper, interviews with U.S news networks, and his activity on Twitter as the source of the charges. Lai attended a court hearing regarding the charges but was denied bail.
Lai was first arrested under the National Security Law in August on the suspicion of foreign collusion but was released on bail after nearly two days in custody. But earlier this month Lai was arrested again, this time over non-related charges for alleged fraud.
Both appeals for bail were denied in the last week, meaning Lai will be in custody until his next court hearing in April 2021.
The out-going U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted in Lai's support: “Hong Kong’s National Security Law makes a mockery of justice” and that “Charges should be dropped and he should be released immediately”.
Hong Kong is a former British colony returned to China under the “one country, two systems” principle, giving it the right to reserve its limited freedoms unseen in the mainland for 50 years, until 2047.
But those within the city have accused Beijing of breaking this agreement. Last year over a then-standalone extradition bill the city was hit by seven consecutive months of protests that often turned violent - with demonstrators demanding more freedoms.
Then, in June this year, the National Security Law was introduced in Hong Kong from Beijing, prohibiting secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign collusion, effectively curtailing the protests and driving the democracy movement underground.
Amid Hong Kong’s political unrest, travel advice for New Zealanders visiting Hong Kong now includes warnings of the potential ramifications of the National Security Law.
Under ‘General travel advice’ the notice now states the legislation can be “interpreted broadly’ whilst there “is a possibility of being detained and removed to Mainland China for those arrested under the legislation.”
Controversially, Article 38 of the law outlines that even non-residents living outside Hong Kong can break the law and face possible prosecution.
Unlike other media outlets and newspapers in Hong Kong, Apple Daily is often critical of both the Hong Kong government and the Chinese Communist Party. It is widely regarded as Hong Kong’s “last pro-democracy newspaper” and with its founders' arrest; the newspaper’s survival is now under threat as Beijing further tightens its grip on the city.
Lee Cheuk Yan, former Legislative Council lawmaker and pro-democracy activist, says Lai “represents the voice of the people of Hong Kong with pro-democracy values” and his charges go against freedom of speech.
“I think the real target here is the Apple Daily media organisation. By targeting Jimmy they are targeting Apple Daily, and therefore we will be losing an important voice of democracy,” Lee said.
Willy Lam, a political scientist and commentator on Chinese politics, believes Lai’s case is a “message that Beijing won’t tolerate challenges to its authority in Hong Kong”.
“It’s a warning to other members of the opposition, liberal intellectuals, commentators, and so forth, to be careful otherwise they might be detained under the National Security legislation,” Lam said.
News of Jimmy Lai’s charges came during the court proceedings involving another pro-democracy activist.
Tony Chung was found guilty over charges of desecrating the Chinese national flag and taking part in unlawful assembly during a small protest in May 2019.
Chung had pleaded not guilty. He is likely to face jail when he is sentenced on December 29th.
Chung, 19, is the former convener of “Studentlocalism”, a pro-democracy student activist group that disbanded in June as the National Security Law came into effect.
But he made headlines in July, as he was the first political figure to be arrested under the National Security Law on suspicion of secession relating to some social media posts. He was bailed within two days and ordered to remove the content.
At the end of October, Chung was arrested again near the U.S Consulate in Hong Kong, apparently as he was about to seek asylum. He was later charged on four charges under the National Security Law, including secession and money laundering, and will face his national security hearing in January 2021.
Before his arrests, Chung had admitted his immediate future looked bleak.
“Very pessimistically, my situation is only in a giant prison. I don’t have many choices at all,” he said.
The latest news in Hong Kong came only a week after internationally known activist Joshua Wong was jailed for 13 months for charges relating to unlawful assembly at the beginning of the citywide protests in June 2019. Fellow democracy activists Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam also received jail sentences for their part in protests.
- Asia Media Centre