Testifying at their trial Friday, student leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement accused the government of clamping down on their right to demonstrate, which they said had driven them into civil disobedience in order to fight for democracy.
“We know neither the central government in Beijing nor our government would accept our idea of a free and fair election,” said Alex Chow, 25, one of three student leaders on trial. “So we decided we needed to use civil disobedience in order to establish a democratic system."
Chow, a former president of the college group Hong Kong Federation of Students, faces a charge of participating in an unlawful assembly. Joshua Wong, 19, the movement’s best-known face and founder of the high school activist group Scholarism, is charged with participating in an unlawful assembly and inciting others to join. Nathan Law, 22, current president of the college federation, also was charged with inciting.
All three pleaded not guilty. The charges stem from a demonstration in which students stormed a newly fenced-off public plaza, a popular venue for protests, at the territory’s main government compound.
“I felt very angry about the fence,” said Wong. “My understanding is that it’s the right of every Hong Kong citizen to participate in demonstrations.”
Under cross-examination, Wong said that “based on my experience over the past three years of organizing protests, I never anticipated direct physical conflicts with the authorities. But these days in Hong Kong, even peaceful nonviolent demonstrations can carry legal consequences."
In order to convict the students, the prosecution must prove they intended to cause physical injuries to people or property during an unlawful assembly.
Over the last two days, the student leaders endured hours of grilling from prosecutor David Leung, who sought to paint them as reckless colluders in a violent mass action, even as they professed to adhere to the principle of peaceful nonviolence in their protests.
“All night long you prodded others into using violence,” said Leung. “You were being a hypocrite, were you not?”
“I disagree,” said Law.
Hong Kong, a former British colony of 7.3 million people that's now a semiautonomous Chinese territory, has maintained an independent judiciary under a separate constitution, which is to remain in force for 50 years after the 1997 transfer of sovereignty.
Under the constitution, the territory is guaranteed the right to vote for its leader at a future date. However, in August 2014, the standing committee of mainland China’s National People’s Congress decided to limit the choice of candidates for Hong Kong’s highest office to two or three candidates handpicked by a pro-Beijing committee.
The decision prompted a boycott of classes organized by the student leaders and escalated into the storming of the plaza, known as Civic Square to local activists.
The students all elected to testify after the judge had found that there was sufficient evidence for the government to bring charges against them.
Immediately after the storming of the plaza, police arrested Chow, Wong and at least 70 others. During the student leaders’ prolonged detention, demonstrators massed and police in riot gear failed to disperse them despite using force.
The emboldened demonstrators then took over major roadways in encampments, which were eventfully cleared on court orders. But little political change has been achieved since.
Although police arrested a total of 48 people in early 2015 for their alleged involvement in the pro-democracy protests, only Wong, Chow and Law have been prosecuted so far.
In contrast to the colorful mass sit-in that had transfixed the world for weeks, the five-day trial was a decidedly low-key affair. No cameras are allowed inside Hong Kong courtrooms, and local laws forbid participants from commenting on ongoing cases. The student defendants have refrained from commenting on social media lest they run afoul of the gag order and be found in contempt of the court.
The trial was attended by a score of spectators, who flashed looks of disgust and whispered disapproval as prosecutors relentlessly pressed the students to recall details of their deliberations in the lead-up to the storming.
As the student defendants left the courthouse Friday afternoon at a bouncy gait, they were greeted by a dozen elderly supporters, including one man in his 80s using a walking stick.
“Civic Square belongs to us citizens,” the group said in a chorus, some pumping their fists.
The students remain free on $64 bail. A verdict is expected by late May or early June at the earliest.
Law is a special correspondent.