The toll of Beijing's security law on Hong Kong's activists

For decades, Hong Kong's activists have been fighting for democracy

Kanis Leung
Wednesday 29 May 2024 03:04 BST

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Louise Thomas

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Activist Chan Po-ying is permitted only 15-minute daily visits to see her husband, Leung Kwok-hung, separated by a plexiglass barrier in a highly guarded Hong Kong jail.

Leung, 68, is one of 47 activists who were prosecuted in the largest national security law case to date in the former British colony. Most of them have been separated from their loved ones for years, uncertain when they might reunite. On Thursday, 16 activists who pleaded not guilty — including Leung — will begin hearing their verdict.

The government had warned there might be legal consequences, but Chan didn’t stop former pro-democracy legislator Leung from participating in an unofficial 2020 primary election that would lead to his prosecution under a national security law that Beijing imposed on the semi-autonomous city.

“Maybe we were too naive,” Chan, 68, said with a laugh.

Charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, Leung and other defendants are accused of attempting to paralyze Hong Kong’s government and topple the city’s leader by securing the legislative majority necessary to veto budgets. The charge carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Those who pleaded guilty have a better chance at shorter prison terms and will be sentenced at a later date.

“I guess almost none can be acquitted,” said Chan, who chairs the League of Social Democrats, one of the city’s few remaining pro-democracy parties. “I am not optimistic. But I also hope someone can get away from it.”

ACTIVISM IN HONG KONG

Chan was part of a wave of youth activism spreading through Hong Kong when she met Leung in a Marxist group around 1975, when the city was still under British rule.

At first, Chan viewed Leung as a “troublesome guy," being adamant about winning every debate. Despite this, they fell in love, and their bond transcended mere romance, Chan said; they are “comrades-in-arms."

A 2005 protest solidified their bond. The two were some of the only Hong Kongers who stayed steadfast with the overseas demonstrators, even after police deployed tear gas and threatened arrest.

“Among those who stood with us in our youth, only the two of us stayed at the site,” she said.

Activism in Hong Kong reached a peak in 2014 with the so-called Umbrella Movement, in which demonstrators used umbrellas to fend off police pepper spray in a nearly 80-day face-off. When Beijing didn't budge, some young activists began advocating for Hong Kong’s independence.

Suppression was swift. Several pro-independence activists were blocked from joining elections, and in 2018, Hong Kong authorities banned a small pro-independence party.

Ventus Lau was among those caught in the crackdown. He was barred from running in an election in 2018, even though he renounced his pro-independence stance. But that didn't deter him from becoming more politically active, helping organize protests in 2019 that saw generations of Hong Kongers rallying against a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed people in the city to be extradited to mainland China.

The largest protest drew an estimated 2 million people — more than a quarter of the city’s population.

Lau, now 30, is one of the defendants who decided to plead guilty in the subversion case related to the 2020 primary. Emilia Wong, a 29-year-old feminist influencer and longtime girlfriend of Lau, supported his activism.

In those years after the Umbrella Movement was stifled, Wong remembered feeling hopeful for a more democratic Hong Kong, despite the somber mood in the city.

“2019 represented a peak of such hopes,” she said. But the high hopes were short-lived.

THE PRIMARY VOTE AND THE CLAMPDOWN

As protests waned due to mass arrests and COVID-19 restrictions, Beijing intensified its control. On June 30, 2020, the sweeping national security law was imposed. Both the Chinese and Hong Kong governments deemed it necessary to restore the city's stability. Several political groups dissolved on the same day.

Just a week later, a city official warned that the pro-democracy primaries might violate the security law. They held the vote anyway, resulting in an unexpectedly high turnout of 610,000.

The poll, organized within the pro-democracy camp, was meant to shortlist candidates who would then run in the official election for the legislature, typically dominated by the pro-Beijing camp. They hoped that, with a legislative majority, the government would listen to their demands.

But things didn’t go as planned.

After the primary, Beijing said the vote challenged the security law that critics argue has been broadly applied to anything the government claims could threaten stability.

When police officers arrived at Wong’s home in January 2021 to arrest Lau for participating in the election, she recalled, “It felt so absurd that I had to laugh.”

That month, over 50 former lawmakers and democracy proponents were arrested under the national security law. Authorities accused them of planning to get enough people into office to indiscriminately veto budgets, grinding governmental functions to a halt, and to force the city leader to step down.

Of those arrested, 47 were charged and brought to court for days of bail hearings, during which time some were hospitalized due to fatigue and others weren't able to shower for days. Most of the defendants were denied bail.

LIVES UPENDED

After Lau was taken into custody, Wong devoted her time to arranging food and book deliveries for him, handling media interviews about the case, organizing visits from his friends, and assisting him with his application to restart university studies while detained.

Each day left Wong feeling utterly drained as she also grappled with the shock of Lau’s prosecution. One day, upon receiving clothes worn by Lau during his detention that still carried his scent, she burst into tears.

“It was a blow to me, specifically to my personal vision of Hong Kong,” she said.

Even for veteran activists like Chan, the situation was painful. To her, 2021 was suffocating. After Leung was denied bail, Chan would find herself crying without any particular reason during her commutes.

Months after the 47 activists were prosecuted, arrests of top management at Apple Daily and Stand News — prominent media outlets known for their critical reports on the government — forced them to shut down. Dozens of civil society groups disbanded. Some of Chan's League of Social Democrats members were also jailed.

That year, Chan wondered daily what would happen next. “I felt lonely, but I had to handle so many things,” she said.

LIFE IN DETENTION

To maintain their relationship between the limited visits, Lau has been writing Wong a letter every day since 2021, sometimes penning Canto-pop song lyrics to express his love. In return, Wong dedicated a love song to Lau on the radio for his birthday.

To Wong, staying with Lau is a natural choice. Lau signed an agreement granting her control over his affairs — a document she described as more powerful than a marriage certificate. She said she would do her best to support him.

Even behind bars, Wong said, Lau drives her to become a better person — when he picked up his reading pace, Wong followed suit. In turn, Wong offered critiques of Lau's lyrics. Lau pursued his translation degree and Wong became a regular at the gym.

“I’m not just standing still waiting; I’ve been running all along, and so has he,” she said.

Chan said life in detention has left Leung visibly thinner and downhearted. Despite their fiery temperaments, Leung sometimes avoids arguments during their brief visits.

"He cherishes our 15 minutes together,” Chan said. “But I also feel very upset because this isn’t the real him.”

In the most optimistic scenario, it might take three to four more years to see Leung free again, Chan said. In the meantime, she continues to organize small-scale street demonstrations, despite the threat of the new national security law that critics fear will further constrict civil liberties.

Chan knows her actions might not make a significant impact, but she says persistence in their respective roles is still meaningful.

“It’s not like nothing has been achieved,” she said.

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