Many Hong Kong residents celebrated Monday as the draconian, near-hysterical pandemic restrictions were finally eased at border checkpoints for the first time since lockdowns began. One traveler expressed jubilation to a Reuters reporter with three simple words: “We are free.”
Their celebrations stood in sharp contrast to events taking place at the city’s West Kowloon Magistrates’ Court, where freedom was experiencing not a rebirth but something more akin to a funeral.
Inside that once-august tribunal, the trials of 47 of Hong Kong’s leading democracy activists began Monday under the national-security law China’s Communist government imposed in June 2020, a law that has been widely condemned as a crackdown on civil liberties and political dissent.
Their supposed crime? Advocating for the democratic norms and traditions the city has long held dear. The national-security law classifies all these actions as “subversion,” and Beijing considers unforgivable the activists’ support of a July 2020 primary election aimed at building democratic opposition to one-party rule and its gradual erosion of liberties.
The list of defendants reads like a who’s who of Hong Kong’s democracy movement: law professor Benny Tai, opposition leader Alvin Yeung, student activists such as Joshua Wong and journalists like Gwyneth Ho. Alongside them stand 43 other victims of the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to stamp out Hong Kong’s freedoms completely and end the “high degree autonomy” granted in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration establishing the conditions under which control of the global metropolis was to be transferred from London to Beijing in 1997.
Foremost among these conditions was the constitutional principle of “one country, two systems,” which guaranteed Hong Kong the right to keep its legal, political and capitalist economic structures while retaining its essential human rights and freedoms.
While the proceedings that began in Hong Kong this week will almost certainly result in sham guilty verdicts for the defendants, the trials’ very existence renders a definitive verdict on the character of the Chinese government. From the injustice of the Hong Kong prosecutions, three valuable lessons can be gleaned.
First, the trials prove that a free system cannot exist under autocratic rule. The trials lack even basic transparency and due process, with some activists subjected to mistreatment and abuse in detention that make a mockery of the purported commitment to the rule of law and human rights that Beijing made in 1984.
When the people of Hong Kong choose freedom and the central government desires autocracy, this week’s proceedings demonstrate conclusively that Beijing gets its way.
Second, the prosecution of democracy activists, professors, journalists and students — all core participants in a free society — illustrates that the word of the Chinese government cannot be trusted. What began in 1997 as a promise of 50 years of autonomy has ended decades early in a West Kowloon kangaroo court. Every unfair verdict handed down at the trial’s conclusion will further shred the credibility of China’s rulers. And a country without credibility cannot be a leader of the world.
Third, this week’s trials have put an end to any exemplary effect on Taiwan that Beijing once might have hoped to gain from its handling of Hong Kong. China’s diabolical mismanagement of the Fragrant Harbor, as Hong Kong literally stands for in Chinese, has proven definitively to Taipei observers that their only free future is outside Beijing’s orbit.
The charade that began this week in Hong Kong is aimed at eradicating any hope of future democracy there by making an example of the activists who had hoped to fight for freedom. May their plight serve as its own example for any who would put stock in the promises of Beijing.
Miles Yu is director of the China Center at the Hudson Institute.