Trial of the ‘Hong Kong 47’ symbolises China’s attempts to dissolve civil society

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<strong>Trial of the ‘Hong Kong 47’ symbolises China’s attempts to dissolve civil society</strong>

By Verna Yu

Originally published by The Guardian on Feb. 15, 2023

Experts say Chinese authorities want to send the message that critical voices deemed a threat to the regime will be erased

A protester stands behind a mock jail with photos of the 47 pro-democracy figures Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

When Hong Kong police arrested dozens of pro-democracy politicians, lawyers, scholars, journalists, NGO workers and activists in early morning raids across the city on 6 January 2021, a sense of terror spread across the city.

Under Beijing’s new national security law, the most influential members of Hong Kong’s civil society were accused of “conspiring to subvert state power” by holding primaries for pro-democracy candidates in the Hong Kong legislative election.

In the following months, many who had been active in pro-democracy activities fled the city. Some who tried to escape got arrested at the airport.

Observers say the current trial of the group, who came to be known as the “Hong Kong 47”, symbolises the death of the city’s civil society and is an extension of Xi Jinping’s crackdown on their mainland Chinese counterparts. During Xi’s decade in power, China’s fledgling civil society has almost completely dissolved after a series of crackdown on human rights lawyers, liberal scholars, journalists, NGO workers and underground churches.

Chinese authorities want to send the same chilling message to Hong Kong that, as on the mainland, critical voices deemed a threat to the regime will be severely dealt with, veteran Chinese activists say.

“The Communist Party believes civil society is a threat to a dictatorial regime. They need to crackdown on the most outspoken voices in society because those are the free voices that refuse to bow to government control,” said Dr Teng Biao, a former mainland rights lawyer who called for the abolition of death penalty and has himself been detained in extralegal “black jail.”

“[The party] feared the influence of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movements and liberalism would spread to mainland China,” said Teng, now a visiting professor at the University of Chicago. He noted Hong Kong’s pro-democracy groups have supported mainland dissidents and their families for decades and staged vigils to commemorate victims in the Tiananmen crackdown for 30 years.

Among those arrested were Hong Kong’s most outspoken figures in its previously robust civil society. They include legal scholar Benny Tai, a key initiator of the primaries, dozens of pro-democracy lawmakers and district councillors, journalist-turned-lawmaker Claudia Mo, young activists Joshua Wong, Tiffany Yuen and journalist Gwyneth Ho, as well as political novices such as Winnie Yu, a health worker unionist and Mike Lam, founder of a retail chain.

Former law professor Benny Tai, a key figure in Hong Kong’s 2014 Occupy Central protests who was arrested under Hong Kong’s national security law, is escorted by correctional services officers. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

“We believed we were doing something open and transparent, how could we have guessed [the authorities’] ridiculous, twisted mentality?” said Ted Hui, an opposition lawmaker who fled Hong Kong just a month before the mass arrests. Hui, who faced a raft of criminal charges over the 2019 anti-government protests, said he too would have been arrested if he had not escaped.

In the following months, more than 50 civil groups including unions, rights groups, independent media outlets and political parties shut down, often after being contacted by so-called “middlemen” who delivered threats or admonishments.

Since the national security law was imposed, more than 230 people have been arrested on national security charges, including newspaper editors following police raids on outspoken media outlets such as Apple Daily and the Stand News. Politically sensitive books have disappeared from bookshops and libraries.

Chang Ping, an influential mainland Chinese writer who was fired from the state-owned Southern Weekend newspaper for his liberal views and denied a work visa in Hong Kong, said the city was now experiencing a “condensed” version of China’s crackdown.

He noted how the Chinese authorities crackdown on not only political activities but also the non-political initiatives aimed at raising people’s consciousness of rights. Groups that have been closed included those advocating patients’ rights, education rights and gender equality.

“They are repeating this pattern (of crackdown) in Hong Kong as they fear this sense of rights will extend to political demands,” Chang said.

William Nee, a researcher at US-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders, said the Chinese leadership “go after what they see as the ultimate source of instability in Hong Kong – anyone dedicated to electoral democracy, anyone opposed to their authoritarian rule.”

“Going after the most vocal and capable pro-democracy leaders is a way to systematically crush dissent and instil fear in the population,” he said.

In the short term, the government has succeeded in “killing the chicken to scare the monkey” – silencing critics by making an example of the most outspoken ones.

“Those going to trial may be detained for two or three more years before final judgement, so the government can’t lose in its effort to wipe out the leadership of civil society even if the court of final appeal should ultimately grant acquittal to an accused,” said China law expert Jerome Cohen at New York University, on the 47.

Staff members from Hong Kong’s Apple Daily pose at newspaper’s headquarters in June 2021. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP

Sociologist Prof Chung Kim-wah, who fled Hong Kong last year after receiving threats from national security police over his independent opinion polls, believed the crackdown in Hong Kong has been even more intense than in China in the past few years, with more than 10,000 arrested over a range of public order charges over their involvement in the 2019 anti-government protests.

Chung said he expected prosecutions to intensify in the years to come “to frighten and intimidate more people into silence.”

Eva Pils, a law professor at King’s College London, said “by trying to understand these trials in mainland Chinese terms, we are beginning to normalise political persecution in Hong Kong – which is no doubt what the central authorities want us to do.”

But observers say that Hong Kong civil society’s strong roots cannot be so easily eradicated.

Hong Kong’s robust civil society has enjoyed a long history of fighting for ordinary people’s rights and checking the power of the government. Even under persecution, like their mainland counterparts, Hong Kong activists, NGO workers, journalists and lawyers are finding ways to continue their mission through less sensitive work. For instance, some journalists whose media outlets have closed turn to operating bookshops while others found new media outlets focused on non-political issues.

“The crackdown sends a chilling message to society, but it also appeals to people’s sense of justice and inspires people to get involved,” said a mainland Chinese NGO worker who declines to be identified for fear of reprisals. “The ‘Blank paper’ movement is an example.”

Ted Hui says he looks forward to a day when he could return to Hong Kong, although it might be a long wait. “

“We have to compete with (the Chinese Communist Party) to see who will last longer,” he said.

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