This week, three young pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong were sentenced to prison terms for their involvement in the 2019 protests in Hong Kong. Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were sentenced to 13.5 months, 10 months and seven months respectively. On the same day, a veteran of the Hong Kong democratic movement, famous businessman Jimmy Lai – already in custody by the authorities – was refused release on bail.
The fate of these brave defenders of freedom is another nail in the coffin of freedom in Hong Kong.
A new national security law was imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing earlier this year as part of an attempt by Beijing to respond to widespread protests in Hong Kong in 2019. The law, among other things, criminalizes the so-called foreign collusion, terrorism, separatism and other political crimes. It sent a chilling message to Hong Kong people that Beijing was no longer sitting on the sidelines but was actively interfering with their autonomy.
While Wong, Chow and Lam have yet to be charged under the new law, some fear it will come next. Instead, they were convicted under the Public Order Ordinance for the role they played in organize an unauthorized demonstration outside police headquarters during the 2019 protests.
Of the three, Chow has the greatest reason to be afraid. While she was only sentenced to 10 months this time around, she currently has pending charges under the new national security law for so-called “complicity with foreign forces”- a crime for which she could get a life sentence. This is the first time she has served a prison sentence.
The three democracy advocates rose to prominence because of their leadership in student protests during the 2014 Umbrella Movement which called for full suffrage or the ability for Hong Kong people to directly elect their chief executive. . (Under the previous one-country, two-system deal put in place after the British handover in 1994, Hong Kong citizens could vote for members of the Legislative Council, but the top leader was appointed in concert with Beijing. .) They also have opposed the efforts of the Hong Kong government to institute a national program, which they feared would erode freedom of thought in education.
Their advocacy began in adolescence and eventually led to them playing a formidable role as the political opposition in Hong Kong. They founded the now dissolved opposition party, Demosisto, with other young Hong Kong people.
They each won their time in the limelight, but none faced the wrath of the government like Joshua Wong. This will be his fourth prison sentence. However, this is the first time he has been sentenced to solitary confinement. He wrote a powerful letter while in segregation ahead of this week’s sentencing, noting that “Cages cannot enclose souls”.
It’s hard to say what awaits Wong, Chow, and Lam, each eager to see freedom fully enjoyed by the people of their city-state. They have just graduated from university. They are still in their twenties. Some have speculated that these accusations are just the start of a long bureaucratic process that will repeatedly put these young people, who are in many ways the lifeblood of the pro-democracy movement, behind bars.
Jimmy Lai Denied Bail is another sign of the constant erosion of civil and political liberties in Hong Kong. Lai is the founder of the media conglomerate Next Digital, owner of the newspaper, Apple Daily. He currently faces charges of foreign collusion under the National Security Act and separate charges of fraud. Lai was most likely denied bail, not because of the fraud charges, but because of pending charges under the National Security Act. To make it clear, Beijing dreads the pro-democracy message that Lai Apple Daily shares with Hong Kong and the rest of the world.
While Hong Kong has faded from U.S. headlines in recent months, the impact of the new national security law is undeniable. The Trump administration should not withhold its conviction for the recent blatant accusations against pro-democracy figures there and should continue to express support for freedom in Hong Kong. The next administration will undoubtedly need to consider the options it has to hold Beijing to account for undermining freedom in the city-state and artisanal policy to preserve what remains of their freedom.