Op-Ed: China’s year of repression ends with a cruel Christmas tradition

 Jimmy Lai, arriving at a Hong Kong court, walks ahead of a crowd of photographers holding up cameras.
Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and media tycoon Jimmy Lai was ordered back to jail on Dec. 31, pending trial on charges of violating the new national security law.
(Associated Press )

As the world struggled with the COVID-19 pandemic during the holiday season and Americans focused on Donald Trump’s frantic efforts to overturn the election he lost, China ended the year in a typical manner. As usual, the Chinese authorities embarked on their annual Christmas tradition of locking up dissidents and critics when the world was too distracted to pay attention.

Soon after Thanksgiving, Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam, young icons of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests of 2014, were all sentenced to prison for taking part in an illegal assembly in 2019. Three days after Christmas, a Shanghai court sentenced citizen journalist Zhang Zhan to four years in prison for critical reporting on the government’s handling of COVID-19 in Wuhan early in the outbreak.

On Dec. 30, 10 Hong Kong activists who were arrested in August when attempting to flee by boat to Taiwan and had been held in Shenzhen were sentenced to prison. Tang Kai-yin and Quinn Moon will spend three and two years in a mainland prison, respectively, for organizing an illegal border crossing. Eight others were sentenced to seven months each while two minors, ages 17 and 18, were handed over to the Hong Kong police.


And on Dec. 31, media tycoon and activist Jimmy Lai was put back behind bars, having been out on bail pending trial for alleged crimes under the sweeping new national security law, which takes aim at ambiguously defined acts of secession, collusion with foreign forces and other actions, and can be used to suppress all forms of dissent against the Chinese government. On Wednesday, the Hong Kong police arrested dozens of pro-democracy politicians and activists for allegedly subverting state power under the national security law.

The persecution of dissidents has worsened since President Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012, but the holiday tradition of jailing activists was one he inherited. In 2009, Liu Xiaobo, an advocate for constitutional reform who was involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, was sentenced to 11 years in prison on Christmas Day. He won the Nobel Peace Prize the following year and died in custody in 2017. In 2011, dissident Chen Xi was sentenced to a decade in prison on Boxing Day. In 2015, Yang Maodong, Liu Yuandong and Sun Desheng, all activists who protested against censorship, were sentenced just after Thanksgiving. The list goes on.

During 2020, however, Beijing acted like it was Christmas all year — trampling on freedoms, particularly in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, with renewed vigor. For several years now, 1 million or so Muslim members of minority groups, most of them Uighurs, have been held in detention camps in Xinjiang. Despite global outrage, these facilities appear to have been expanded in 2020 and surveillance strengthened.

In April, several senior leaders of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, including Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, were arrested. In June, the Beijing government imposed the national security law on Hong Kong, which effectively shattered the notion that the territory’s freedoms would be preserved until 2047, as promised in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.

In July, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections were postponed for a year and Xu Zhangrun, a prominent Beijing law professor and outspoken critic of Xi, was detained and dismissed from his job at a top university. In September, a former real estate tycoon was sentenced to 18 years in jail on charges of corruption after publishing an essay critical of Xi, and authorities passed a bilingual education program in Mongolia that critics called an attempt to dilute Mongolian culture.

Just before the holidays in November, the Hong Kong government disqualified four pro-democracy legislators after Beijing’s top legislative body ruled that lawmakers threatening national security should be expelled, leaving the legislative council without an opposition.


Although it was a brutal year for rights and freedoms in areas under China’s control, the Beijing government faced few consequences for its actions. In December, the European Union signed an investment deal with Beijing after China agreed to pursue the ratification of the International Labor Organization’s rules on forced labor. In other words, the EU agreed to ignore the well-documented forced labor in Xinjiang, the clampdown in Hong Kong, and more.

The new year has begun with new distractions, and more are sure to come. That could be bad news for the millions of people oppressed under Beijing’s thumb.

Jessie Lau, a Hong Kong native, is a writer and journalist based in London. Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a history professor at UC Irvine and author of “Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.” Amy Hawkins is a British journalist who conducted research and interviews for “Vigil.”