HONG KONG—There are many protesters in this city, and many people facing trials stemming from the unrest that coursed through its streets in the past few years. Few defendants, though, have had the stature of the seven gray-haired people who sat for 20 days recently in West Kowloon’s Courtroom 3.
To hear the prosecutors tell it, all seven became criminals when, on a rainy August afternoon in 2019, they led more than a million people on an unpermitted march while they carried a banner and chanted for democratic elections and an end to police abuse.
Most Hong Kongers see things quite differently. To citizens and scholars, the seven are icons in the city’s long, fading fight for democracy. Minor figures in the massive 2019 protests for which they’re on trial, they were all major players in the 30-year battle with the governments of Britain and China to allow democratic elections here. Two of the defendants, lawyers Margaret Ng and Martin Lee, are former lawmakers who have defended many activists in court and lobbied world leaders since the days of Bill Clinton and Margaret Thatcher. Leung Kwok-hung, a former legislator always referred to as “Long Hair,” has brought many precedent-setting legal challenges to the government’s restrictions on political protest and treatment of prisoners. Jimmy Lai is the most famous publisher in China. Others in the trial served in office and help organize the annual June 4th vigil to honor the many people killed in 1989 near Tiananmen Square.
“These are the symbolic old time veterans at the forefront of the movement since 1980s,” said Ma Ngok, a government professor at Chinese University of Hong Kong. Most “have never been arrested.”
Two years after Hong Kong exploded into the biggest, longest uprising in its history, the trial of these seven seniors carried a far heavier significance than the minor disorder charges might imply. Prosecuting these figures was, to many experts, a clear signal from the Chinese government that even the constrained political freedoms allowed in Hong Kong would no longer apply. Said Ngok of the trial: “That was a sign that Beijing has been tolerating what they were doing for 30 years. They didn’t like it. They don’t like it.”
On Friday, District Court Judge Amanda Woodcock found all seven guilty of organizing and joining an unauthorized, albeit peaceful, march in August, 2019. Each person faces five years in prison, and, for three, the end of their legal careers.
The decision fell the day after Beijing replaced Hong Kong’s elections system, one that had allowed the expression of some political opposition since the city’s 1997 handover from Britain to China. The new framework eliminates the chance that voters who favor democracy could elect a majority of representatives to counter Beijing’s demands.
Beijing’s reaction to 30 years of pushback was inevitable, said defendant Lee Cheuk-yan, in an interview days earlier. “In Chinese there’s a saying: the revenge after the autumn.” What’s happening is “political retaliation. What they’re doing is retaliating against the protest movement.”
The pro-democracy protests that raged through Hong Kong and riveted the world in 2019 were run largely by unknown, enraged young people garbed in black, wearing 3M respirators, who were determined to break Beijing’s tightening control of the city.
They argued that they had been denied a voice in an extradition bill that would ship suspects to China for trial, and denied the right to choose their elected leaders freely—and when they refused to disperse, they were clubbed and pelted by police. Many nights, under clouds of tear gas, residents tossed bricks and Molotov cocktails to sabotage businesses, halt transit lines and trash universities as riot squads fired rubber rounds and sometimes live bullets. More than 10,000 people were arrested that year and the one after.
Amid the dozens of riot trials, prosecutors chose to press charges against a group of seniors who left a rally during an August downpour and slogged through puddles, joined by an estimated 1.7 million people.
Many people here remember it as simply “the rainy march,” the most peaceful event that tumultuous summer. Michael Davis, a University of Hong Kong law professor who knows each defendant who sat in Courtroom 3, says the prosecution is designed to send a message to Hong Kongers.
“It appears the aim of both governments is to silence opposition,” Davis wrote in an email from New York. “Why line up an entire case around moderate [democrats] who long advocated non-violence?”
“The grudge is old,” he says, “but the effort to take these people out is new.”
Their efforts date back to before the 1997 handover to China, which many in Hong Kong saw as an opportunity to build democratic rule for the first time in the city’s history. In more than a century as a crown colony of Britain, its residents had never been allowed free elections or the right to govern on their own.
Many Hong Kongers were keen to lose the colonial yoke and become part of China, feeling they could help the nation ravaged by Mao emerge from decades of cruel politics and poverty. Then came the spring of 1989. After members of the People’s Liberation Army opened fire on people in Beijing, some who joined a sprawling sit-in for freedoms, Hong Kong erupted in peaceful protests. The Chinese government knew it needed to calm the locals and the markets. Beijing agreed to a constitution that granted freedoms to protest, gather, publish and strike. Hong Kong, the constitution promised, would have 50 years of these rights and a “high degree of autonomy,” and would eventually choose leaders through democratic elections. China’s legislature would hold the power to intervene only in matters of foreign affairs and national security.
From the start, Beijing couldn’t keep out of Hong Kong’s affairs. The pace of those intrusions quickened in 2014. By then, Xi Jinping was president and Hong Kong was again agitating for full voting rights, especially the freedom to choose its chief executive without vetting by Beijing. That touched off a 79-day mass sit-in known as the Umbrella Revolution named for the device deployed when police showered crowds with pepper spray. Beijing didn’t give in to their demands, but exhausted Hong Kongers knew there were many like-minded souls whose fury might be harnessed again.
Protest-related prosecutions rose throughout 2020, with new ones starting all the time. The government has zealously enforced strict public-gathering laws still on the books from British colonial days. More danger for protesters arrived last June, when Beijing imposed a broad national security law filled with vague provisions. Designed to thwart acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreigners, the law allows the government to recast defiant acts as something more sinister and destabilizing than mere opposition to laws or officials. Some protest tactics, such as shouting or posting popular slogans seeking revolution, have been deemed as attacks on the Chinese central government. A few people face trial for that.
The law has ensnared 100 people in arrests and at least 54 prosecutions, including Lai, founder of Next Media. Lai pressed for U.S. sanctions against China during interviews with overseas officials and media, acts that prosecutors may consider collusion with foreign forces at trial. Most residents were blindsided in February when Hong Kong’s government charged 47 lawyers, district councilors and activists with conspiring to subvert the government. Their offense is tied to an unofficial primary election that aimed to choose a slate strong enough to oust the majority pro-China bloc and put greater pressure on Beijing.
In a city that once seemed to mark most holidays with a protest, there is no tolerance now for large, organized disagreement with the government. Police have not sanctioned any marches, vigils or protests since early 2020, citing the pandemic. That included the annual candlelight vigil that has honored Tiananmen victims on every June 4 since 1990. (For good measure, people are being prosecuted for pushing over barriers and gathering in Victoria Park on June 4, 2020 to mark the event.) Many residents are convinced that under the new security law, the vigil will never take place in Hong Kong again.
Since the democracy protests quieted in early 2020, and police set to work rounding up hundreds of protesters, observers have wondered why the seven people in Courtroom 3 were charged at all. Martin Lee and colleagues played minor roles, at most, in demonstrations that previous year. Only one defendant served with the Civil Human Rights Front, the civic group that has for years organized mass marches. (That man, Au Nok-hin, pleaded guilty on the trial’s first day. He’s now in jail, also charged in the July primary case.)
Attending the trial for several of its 20 days, Avery Ng, chairman of the League of Social Democrats, the party started by Leung Kwok-hung, said that prosecuting the seven was “the easiest way to incite fear among the public.” Ng faces protest disorder charges of his own in a separate case. “If the most careful, the least radical leaders can be tried for walking in the rain,” he told me during a break, “it sets a low bar for the rest of us.”
The trial became, in part, a referendum on Hong Kong’s “procession” laws, a relic of British colonial rule that give police the right to permit or deny any public march, no matter how peaceful. In the trial’s closing days, the defendants’ barristers argued that the procession after the legal rally should never have been banned. With all subway entrances jammed, the defendants and thousands of attendees had no choice but to leave the packed rally by walking. And yes, they shouted slogans and carried a banner while doing so.
Police officials told the court that they refused to sanction the Front’s requested march that day because several previous protests had ended with some people hurling Molotov cocktails. Allowing a moving protest, one whose theme was anti-police, they said, would have invited trouble. By imposing a ban, the defense argued, police penalized the peaceful group for the violent acts of others.
The defense also raised a constitutional argument: allow police to sanction or block protests has created an undue block on their free speech, in violation of the city’s constitution.
On April 1, Judge Amanda Woodcock sided completely with the prosecution. Neither the constitutional challenges, nor the argument that the arrests had come eight months after the fact, persuaded her. “It was a disingenuous excuse to flout the law by describing their actions as a dispersal plan,” she wrote. “The defendants knew that the public procession they organized and took part in was an unauthorized public procession.”
Long Hair Leung was already in custody for another protest conviction. As guards led him back into lockup with Lai, he shouted to people in the courtroom: “Peaceful assembly is not a crime!” His compatriots were free until they all return on April 16 for sentencing. Outside the courthouse, defendants Lee Cheuk-yan and Cyd Ho told journalists that their actions had been just and lawful under Hong Kong’s 24-year-old bill of rights.
“We believe we have the right under the constitution to march,” Lee said. “And many cases we are facing arises out of the banning of assembly by police, which we believe, we strongly believe, is unconstitutional.” If the group is imprisoned, “We continue the struggle for what we deserve. We deserve our rights, our freedom, and democracy in the future.”