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Hong Kong: Critics slam crackdown ahead of Jimmy Lai trial

William Yang Taipei
May 6, 2021

Media tycoon Jimmy Lai will appear in court on Thursday on fraud charges, just after a group of activists were sentenced for participating in a vigil last year. Experts worry that the crackdown is likely to intensify.

Jimmy Lai is escorted into a correctional services van in Hong Kong in February
Jimmy Lai was charged on suspicion of concealing and falsely representing the use of his officeImage: AFP/Getty Images

As Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai is expected to appear in court on Thursday on fraud charges, experts worry that the ongoing crackdown on pro-democracy and opposition figures is likely to intensify in the semi-autonomous territory.

Lai, along with two senior executives of his company Next Digital, was charged with suspicion of concealing and falsely representing the use of his office to his landlord.

If convicted, Lai could be sentenced to up to seven years in jail. However, it won't be the first jail term that Lai will have received. Last month, he was handed 14 months in prison for participating in an unauthorized assembly in August 2019.

His appearance comes just after a Hong Kong district court sentenced four prominent activists, including Joshua Wong, to several months in prison for their participation in a vigil held last year to commemorate the 1989 events at Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Wong, who is already imprisoned, was handed an additional 10 months for unauthorized assembly and participating in the Tiananmen Square vigil, held on June 4, 2020. Three others were sentenced to four to six months in the same case. Meanwhile, 20 others facing similar charges are set to appear in court in June.

Wong was sentenced to 13 and a half months in prison for taking part in a protest in 2019. Prominent activists Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were also sentenced to 10 months and seven months respectively in the same case.

'Wearing the opposition down'

Critics say that the recent rulings reflect a trend of slapping prominent pro-democracy figures with multiple charges.

Alvin Cheung, a postdoctoral fellow at McGill University, said that part of the Hong Kong government's strategy is to wear opposition figures down by forcing them to spend time and money.

"They try to tie political opponents up with civil and criminal proceedings and force them to expend costs," Cheung told DW. "Ideally, you bankrupt them, which means that they are automatically ineligible for any sort of elected office for several years."

In Hong Kong, 'the resistance will go on'

Last week, Joshua Wong and three other activists pleaded guilty to the charges against them in the June 4 case, and several pro-democracy figures also pleaded guilty to charges of participating in illegal assembly in another case.

"Under normal circumstances, a guilty plea gets defendants a sentencing discount,” Cheung explained. "Costs will be another calculation too because it will take a lot of time and money for a case like the one against [Jimmy Lai] to work through the system, which is part of the government's strategy."

'This is what authoritarian regimes do'

As the number of pro-democracy figures being targeted by the government continues to grow, some opposition figures believe the phenomenon is having a chilling effect on Hong Kong's society. "Some feel worried and scared, and others just carry on,” said Emily Lau, a former chairperson of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong.

"It's very tragic that Beijing has decided to do this, because they found what happened over the last few years to be quite unacceptable and intolerable. I think they have overdone it by fighting back."

Cheung said he is not surprised to see the crackdown on opposition figures in Hong Kong intensify.

"This is exactly what other authoritarian regimes do, and usually it's deployed with more sophistication," he said. "There is nothing surprising about this. The strategy now is essentially to eliminate space for independent civil society.”

Some experts point out the vague nature of the national security law as the source of the growing insecurity in Hong Kong's civil society. The contentious law, implemented by Beijing, "has generated many new movable red lines and expandable no-go areas,” said Kenneth Chan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University. "The law is even unclear to law enforcement, and people are feeling increasingly insecure," Chan told DW.

Despite the growing uncertainty, Chan thinks the crackdown hasn't entirely overwhelmed the spirit of resistance in Hong Kong. "I think people in Hong Kong wouldn't easily give up,” he told DW.

Joshua Wong speaks to DW

An 'abuse of prosecutorial discretion'

Alvin Cheung expects the crackdown on opposition figures in Hong Kong to continue. "The common law system relies very heavily on the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, and prosecutorial discretion must be exercised in the public interest,” Cheung told DW. "What we have seen since 2014 is the consistent abuse of prosecutorial discretion for partisan and political purposes."

He also believes that things are only going to become more difficult for Hong Kong's civil society. "The government is going to keep throwing the books at people," he said. "The government is going to use anything they can lay their hands on."

Despite legal adversity, however, political veterans like Lau believe that many opposition activists will continue their work.

"There are still people who will continue the struggle under the dangerous circumstances in Hong Kong," she said.