‘We refuse to disappear’: the Hong Kong 47 facing life in jail after crackdown

Estimated read time 6 min read

The verdict wasn’t surprising but outside room no 2 of the West Kowloon courthouse, people still wept. The panel of Hong Kong national security judges had set down two days for the hearing but dispensed with the core business in about 15 minutes. In the city’s largest ever national security trial – involving the prosecution of pro-democracy campaigners and activists from a group known as the “Hong Kong 47” – almost all the defendants were found guilty of conspiracy to commit subversion.

Their crime was trying to win an election, holding unofficial primaries in 2020 attended by an estimated 600,000 residents.

The plan was devised by organiser and academic Benny Tai, who had previously been jailed over his involvement in the 2014 “umbrella movement”, and whom Beijing has labelled a “vicious traitor”. Tai’s plan began with primaries to select the best candidates to win a legislative majority. They would then block government budgets to potentially force a dissolution and the resignation of the chief executive, Carrie Lam, in an effort to have the government answer the movement’s demands.

Last Thursday, the court found this plan would lead to a constitutional crisis and therefore threatened national security.

The convicted included one organiser, Hong Kong-Australian dual national Gordon Ng, and 13 candidates, almost all former politicians. Two other candidates were acquitted but remain under bail while the government prepares an appeal.

Those 16 were the only ones to plead not guilty from the group of 47 charged in early 2021 after mass dawn raids by national security police. The other 31 accused, including four who would testify for the prosecution, had already pleaded guilty but the court delayed sentencing until the trial of the 16 was done. The 45 campaigners currently convicted face sentences of up to life in prison.

Back in 2020, after pro-democracy protests had racked the city for months throughout 2019, Hong Kong’s government tightened a crackdown on the movement, crushing dissent and opposition through a new national security law. Thousands were arrested over the protests, hundreds on national security accusations, and several media outlets were silenced. Many dissidents fled overseas. In the context of those diminishing freedoms – more than three years after they were arrested – the defendants’ supporters had hoped for the best but prepared for the worst.

“Although he knew the chances of winning were slim, he could only face it positively,” a friend of Ng told the Observer. She said Ng had thought deeply about his plea of not guilty, weighing up the consequences for his family – for whom he was the main breadwinner – and his principles. In an August 2022 statement posted online by an intermediary, Ng had said: “Do I think I have committed a crime? I don’t, I absolutely don’t. I am ready to face the largest battle of my life in the battlefield of court. I fear, but I don’t retreat.”

Most of the 47 defendants have been in jail since their arrests. They were not hardened criminals but members of Hong Kong’s politically active mainstream society, a mix of pro-democracy politicians such as Helena Wong, Claudia Mo and Kwok Ka-ki, veteran activists including Leung “Long Hair” Kwok-hung, up-and-comers who had recently won council seats, and civil society workers.

Lee Yu-shun at the West Kowloon court last week, where he was one of two of the 47 defendants acquitted.View image in fullscreen

Some were making the move into politics after working as social workers or trade union officials or, in the case of Gwyneth Ho, a journalist who had covered the 2019 protests and was beaten while filming a mob attack on demonstrators.

Claudia Mo, a former journalist and popular legislator known affectionately as “Auntie Mo”, pleaded guilty. Mo, a passionate but unflappable advocate for Hong Kong’s democracy, had frequently spoken to the foreign media over the years. For these conversations she was denied bail.

When police smashed through her front door, they also seized her phone and laptop, from which they presumably found the WhatsApp conversations she had had with the Guardian and Observer and other outlets. In jail, the 67-year-old has reportedly run language lessons for other prisoners. She was denied permission to visit her husband, British journalist Philip Bowring, when he was ill.

Emilia Wong, the girlfriend of politician and activist Ventus Lau, 30, said he has been left physically diminished by his time in prison.

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“I could personally feel these political prisoners were slowly dying a social death with less and less attention being paid to them,” Wong said in February.

Last Thursday, Stanley Ng was lined up early outside the West Kowloon court, alongside foreign diplomat observers. A member of the Democratic party, Ng has friends and former colleagues on trial and in prison. “I visited jail several times, I visited just yesterday,” he said, speaking in a personal capacity. The trial “has damaged those jailed and pressured their families, they are under stress”, he added.

Gordon Ng’s friend said Ng had not expected arrest, and the first year in jail took a toll until he found ways to cope. “Over the past years, I have seen in him, besides a sense of responsibility and persistence, resilience. Of course, there’s also a very nerdy sense of humour that allows him to maintain a positive attitude in such a black-humour situation.”

Unofficial primaries had been held before, but these came less than a fortnight after Beijing imposed its national security law, and Hong Kong minister Erick Tsang had warned that the primaries could violate it. But the organisers went ahead, taking a huge gamble that the pro-democracy movement could still find a way.

The election the primaries were preparing for was later postponed by the government, ostensibly because of the pandemic. By the time it was rescheduled, the government had overhauled the electoral system to ensure that only pro-Beijing “­patriots” could run.

Emily Lau, a member of the Democratic party who remains vocally pro-democracy – and so far unprosecuted – said her city is now deeply changed. Her party is unable to run candidates or fundraise, and has even had attempts to hold group banquets blocked, apparently over accusations they were “regrouping”.

“They have ways to show they don’t like you… How do you continue to exist?” she said. “We will continue to push. We refuse to just disappear.”

Source: theguardian.com

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