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PoliticsHong Kong

Why is Hong Kong arresting more activists?

William Yang Taipei
July 22, 2022

Courts in Hong Kong have recently imprisoned at least two activists under protest-related charges. New regional leader John Lee has vowed to focus on national security, and critics are wary of what that could mean.

A woman with while hair partially wrapped in the UK flag is gripped under the arms by two police officers who are taking her away
'Grandma Wong' is one numerous Hong Kong protesters that have recently been sentenced and imprisoned Image: PETER PARKS/AFP

Just two weeks after John Lee became Hong Kong's new chief executive, courts in Hong Kong have sentenced at least two prominent activists to jail for participating in or organizing protests.

Koo Sze-yiu, a 75-year-old activist with terminal cancer, was sentenced on July 12 to nine months in jail for planning a protest against the Beijing Winter Olympics.

Koo had originally planned to carry a wooden coffin to China's liaison office in Hong Kong on February 4, the opening day of the Beijing Winter Olympics, and was arrested on the day of the protest. National security police also raided his apartment.

While the principal magistrate said the case required a deterrent sentence, Koo remained defiant in court, saying getting jailed is part of his life.

"I don't mind being a warrior for the democracy movement, and I don't mind being a martyr for democracy and human rights," he said.

A day later, 66-year-old activist Alexandra Wong, who has been nicknamed "Grandma Wong" by protesters throughout Hong Kong, was sentenced to eight months in jail for taking part in two protests that the prosecutors labeled as "unlawful assemblies."

Signs that the crackdown will continue

The charge against Wong is the same as the one that has been used against many protesters and some prominent pro-democracy figures since the anti-extradition bill protest in 2019.

Since China imposed a controversial National Security Law (NSL) on Hong Kong in 2020, any form of public protests or gatherings have been effectively criminalized in the city while thousands of protesters and pro-democracy figures have been arrested and jailed.

Some observers say these sentences send a message to Hong Kong's general public that the authorities will continue their heavy-handed crack down on civil society.

"They wouldn't even distinguish between more radical and direct action versus peaceful, non-violent actions," said Maggie Shum, an expert at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame.

"Anything that's against the state will be seen in the light of threatening Hong Kong's security. I think it's showing the people and civil society in Hong Kong that they shouldn't think about resisting, because the heavy prison sentences are what they could get," she added.

Hong Kong: 25 years of Chinese rule

Hong Kong government 'weaponizing' the court

Others have also raised concerns about how the courts in Hong Kong are handling protest-related cases. Patrick Poon, a visiting researcher at the Institute of Comparative Law at Japan's Meiji University, says the courts and judges are now largely relying on arguments provided by the prosecutors for their rulings.

"We can only expect more prosecution-oriented judgment in the NSL and protest-related cases and denial of bail will become a new normal," he told DW.

Poon says this trend raises questions over whether Hong Kong's judicial system still enjoys the independence that it was once known for.

"In the long-term, how the judges will exert their influence on the juries and how they make their decisions based on the presentation by the prosecution instead of facts is something we need to be concerned about," he added.

Shum, for her part, says Hong Kong authorities have weaponized the court to do the bidding for the government.

"This is a trend that you can see in other authoritarian states, where authorities used the courts," she told DW.

"In Hong Kong, we used to take pride in our rule of law, but now while there is still rule of law, the law has changed to one that serves the government, rather than serving society. Instead of carrying out outright repression, they are modifying existing institutions to make them serve the government's purpose," she added.

After being sworn in as Hong Kong's new leader on July 1, John Lee said the rule of law was a fundamental value, calling the controversial security law the key instrument that helps Hong Kong to maintain stability after months of large-scale protests in 2019.

John Lee stands in front of a yellow background while speaking into microphones
John Lee is Hong Kong's new leader as of July 1Image: Selim Chtayti/REUTERS

Fears of totalitarian leadership

John Lee, who was Hong Kong's former security chief, has been viewed by many as playing a role in the implementation of the NSL in Hong Kong, and some activists fear that the city will become more "totalitarian" under his leadership.

"The nomination of Lee by Beijing will only show that Hong Kong is going to become a more totalitarian society," said Sunny Cheung, an exiled Hong Kong activist in the US.

"The situation in Hong Kong will worsen because John Lee's political task is to control and silence Hong Kong in a more comprehensive way. While the NSL has successfully dismantled Hong Kong's civil society and political opposition, Lee is still desperately trying to push for Article 23 and a new cybersecurity law for Hong Kong," he added.

In an interview with China's state newspaper the People's Daily last month, John Lee said completing the legislative work of Article 23 of Hong Kong's Basic Law is the Hong Kong government's constitutional responsibility.

Article 23 of the Basic Law mandates that the Hong Kong government pass its own legislation aiming to safeguard national security.

"I think these examples already prove that John Lee is being entrusted to use a more assertive and comprehensive way to rule Hong Kong," exiled Cheung told DW.

While most analysts agree that the crackdown on Hong Kong's civil society will likely continue and intensify under John Lee's administration, they also think some organizations in civil society will still try to express their views by adjusting their messaging.

"What we can expect from civil society in the future is that there will only be a few groups that are still willing to express their views in a less confrontational tone," Poon said.

"That will reduce civil society's focus on certain issues while creating more opportunities for people to be more creative in their expressions. The situation in Hong Kong is going to be very similar to that in China, since advocates in China have been using these strategies for years," he added.

Edited by: Leah Carter