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High-profile Hong Kong activists face trial as China tightens grip on democracy

Last week, nine high-profile Hong Kong democracy activists went on trial on charges related to the 2019 mass protest movement there.

Why it matters: The trial is another step in Beijing's heavy-handed destruction of Hong Kong's liberal political traditions.


What's happening: The defendants include Lee Cheuk-yan, who has organized Hong Kong's annual Tiananmen candlelight vigil every year since 1989; venerated politician Martin Lee; former legislator Margaret Ng; and Jimmy Lai, owner of news outlet Apple Daily.

  • The defendants are charged with organizing an illegal assembly after they led a march of 1.7 million people in 2019 despite a police ban on protests.

The big picture: The charges are politically motivated and represent a degradation of Hong Kong's traditionally independent judiciary system.

  • "Martin Lee is the personification of the rule of law. He knows the law, he practices law, he reveres the law," wrote Fred Hiatt, editor of the Washington Post editorial page, in an op-ed published Feb. 21.
  • "That Chinese leader Xi Jinping now wants to put this distinguished 82-year-old barrister in prison perfectly illustrates the dictator’s contempt for the law. It shows, as it is meant to show, that no one in Hong Kong is safe any longer from the arbitrary repression of the Chinese Communist Party," Hiatt wrote.

Context: The charges are not related to the national security law that Beijing forced on Hong Kong in 2020. That law cannot be invoked for incidents that occurred before it took effect in July 2020.

  • But Hong Kong authorities, under China's guidance, have pursued every avenue of prosecution against pro-democracy activists. Several activists already charged with lesser crimes under existing laws, including Lai, have recently seen additional charges under the national security law, which carries far harsher punishments including up to 10 years or even life in prison.
  • "I have four trials for four incidents," Lee Cheuk-yan told me in a phone call on Monday morning just before he entered the courthouse for his trial.
  • When I asked him if he had been charged under the national security law, he said, “Not yet.”

What to watch: China is considering replacing the 117 seats in Hong Kong's lawmaking body currently held by largely pro-democracy representatives, according to a Wall Street Journal report, and giving them to Hong Kong-based members of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, whose members are pro-Beijing.

  • The Hong Kong government also said it had found "deficiencies" in the editorial management of RTHK, the city's public broadcaster, and announced that the independent news outlet's director would be replaced with a bureaucrat with security experience but no journalism background.

The bottom line: The national security law has made it far more dangerous for Hong Kong residents to openly oppose politically motivated prosecutions, even if the charges themselves aren't under that law — making it that much easier for Beijing to further entrench authoritarianism in the city.

Go deeper: With Hong Kong arrests, China outlaws democracy itself

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