Despite the year nearly at an end, things aren’t slowing in Hong Kong in what was another week of political controversy in the former British colony.
Last Wednesday [December 2] started a whirlwind 24 hours within the city, with Hong Kong’s high-profile activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam all sentenced to jail terms following charges for unlawful assembly at the beginning of last year's pro-democracy protests.
The same evening, Jimmy Lai, media-mogul and founder of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, was arrested and subsequently denied bail on fraud charges.
All are currently spending several months in jail.
Joshua Wong has been an activist since 2014 and is the global icon to the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement in the eyes of Western media. He, along with Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam, had pleaded guilty on November 23 to unlawful assembly charges and had been kept in custody before their sentencing at West Kowloon Court on December 2.
The charges were in relation to a demonstration that took place outside the Hong Kong Police’s Headquarters on June 21, 2019. The pro-democracy protests were only weeks old at the time.
Wong received a jail sentence of 13 and a half months after admitting two unlawful assembly charges and is currently behind bars for his fourth time.
Ivan Lam received a seven-month sentence for what will be his third time behind bars, whilst Agnes Chow – nicknamed the “Real Mulan” by her supporters - sobbed in court as the judge announced a sentence for 10 months, her first time in prison.
Chow was recently been included in the list for the BBC's Top 100 Women for 2020 for her activism.
Then, less than 24 hours later, billionaire mogul Jimmy Lai came to the police station for what was thought to be a routine bail visit as part of his previous arrests. He was then arrested on alleged fraud charges with two of his executives and kept overnight in custody. The next morning, he was denied bail as the judge - who was appointed to oversee national security charges - felt the risk of “absconding” and “reoffending” were likely.
Lai is alleged to have used some office buildings for incorrect purposes. Now at 73 years old, he will be in custody for four and a half months, until his April 2021 court hearing.
Avery Ng, a social activist in Hong Kong said 2021 would see further crackdowns in the former British colony. Ng is one of 15 pro-democracy figures facing charges in relation to last year's protests.
Responding to the news about Jimmy Lai being held in prison, Ng said:
“We are now waiting in line to go court, so I will not be surprised if myself or my colleagues will be in jail over the next few months.
“It’s safe to say it’s going to be a tough road ahead, not just for leaders, but for any individuals who have protested against the government.”
Joseph Cheng, political analyst and former Professor at the City University of Hong Kong, echoed Ng’s comments.
“Hong Kong people realise that Beijing tolerates no political opposition at this stage. It is a very difficult period of time for the pro-democracy movement,” he said.
Following the political clampdown in the city, another pro-democracy figure has been in the news.
Lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-Fung has fled Hong Kong in sensational fashion.
Hui, who was himself facing nine criminal charges in the city, had permission from the Hong Kong government to take a trip to Denmark after being invited by lawmakers. Hui then announced he would not be returning to Hong Kong because of fear of jail. He is currently in the UK.
Since then, Hong Kong authorities have frozen Hui’s bank accounts, including one with HSBC, which is headquartered in London. Hui joins fellow activist Nathan Law, who fled Hong Kong amid the National Security Law implementation in June.
Aside from the global pandemic, the latest sentencing sums up what has been a turbulent year for Hong Kong. The National Security Law has no doubt been the catalyst for a ring of changes in the former British colony and as the year ends, the city’s most influential activists are behind bars.
Only last month all 19 pro-democracy lawmakers in the Legislative Council left their seats amid new powers the mainland granted the Hong Kong government.
This led to New Zealand joining its Five Eyes partners, the UK, the US, Canada, and Australia in a joint statement criticising China’s “concerted campaign to silence all critical voices in Hong Kong.”
In November Chinese ambassador Wu Xi told an audience in Wellington that “issues of Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong concern China’s sovereignty and territory integrity."
Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has been assertive in her comments about the international responsibilities China holds when it comes to places like Hong Kong. She recently said Wellington and Beijing’s relationship is “maturing” despite tensions increasing against the Five Eye partners about Hong Kong.
The deteriorating relationship between Australia and China is an example of how things can quickly turn sour over trade and politics. China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner, so Wellington will have to be smart in its relations amid the growing pressure Beijing faces.
- Asia Media Centre