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As democracy fades, Hong Kong’s political opposition become political prisoners

Former law professor Benny Tai in a car.
Former law professor Benny Tai was among 47 leading pro-democracy figures charged with subversion under a national security law.
(Associated Press)

They bonded on the university debate team. On many nights, they’d stay up late playing board games and discussing Hong Kong’s future. She was a law student. He studied Chinese literature.

Emilia Wong, 26, and Ventus Lau, 27, should have had a bright future. Politically engaged and fiercely proud of their native city, they are the sort of young couple a flourishing society might embrace.

But seven years after they started dating, Wong found herself at the Lai Chi Kok Reception Center, one of Hong Kong’s largest prison facilities, delivering fresh clothes and taking meal orders for Lau, who is facing a possible life sentence on charges he violated a Chinese national security law.

“It smells so bad, so bad. I can’t even describe it,” Wong said, pointing to her partner’s used clothes bundled in a plastic bag. Lau, an activist who championed greater autonomy from Beijing, wore the outfit for four consecutive days in a marathon bail hearing earlier this month for 47 pro-democracy figures accused of trying to overthrow the government by organizing and participating in informal primary elections last year. One defendant fainted during the hearing. Others were hospitalized for exhaustion. Lawyers had to persuade the court to allow their clients to shower.

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The landmark case involves nearly every leading voice of dissent in Hong Kong and undermines the common-law system that undergirds the Asian financial center. It’s considered the final, lasting blow to political opposition in a city that Beijing had promised some aspects of self-rule until at least 2047 under a 50-year agreement with Britain.

Last week, China’s rubber-stamp parliament went even further, approving a plan to impose a litmus test on candidates for Hong Kong’s top executive and members of its legislature so that only “patriots” could stand for election. The new rules offer the illusion of representative government, critics say, but send a clear message that any challenger to Beijing’s authority would no longer stand a chance of being elected.

Democracy in Hong Kong, they say, has run its course.

“Beijing is forcefully telling the Hong Kong people, ‘You don’t want to mess with us; I am the person in charge,’” said Leticia Wong, a member of the opposition Civic Party, whose leadership was disqualified from seeking reelection last year for supporting foreign sanctions on local and mainland officials.

More than 10,000 were arrested after pro-democracy protests in 2019. While the world deals with COVID, they’ve languished in a grueling trial process.

The electoral overhaul prompted the Biden administration on Wednesday to impose additional sanctions on 24 Chinese and Hong Kong officials over a “deep concern” for the continued attacks on the city’s autonomy.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said last week that the electoral changes breached the terms of the handover arrangement signed with China to relinquish the former colony in 1997.

“This is part of a pattern designed to harass and stifle all voices critical of China’s policies,” Raab said.

Beijing, for its part, accused the U.S. and Britain of meddling in China’s internal affairs and said it had the right to defend its sovereignty and national security.

Hong Kong is now entering a phase where its distinctions with the mainland will increasingly erode, experts predict.

Changes once thought unthinkable have become commonplace: Critics of the Chinese regime are blacklisted from academia, schoolchildren are indoctrinated with political propaganda, civil servants must swear oaths of loyalty to the government, pro-democracy films are being censored and independent media organizations punished for critical coverage.

“When lawyers, professors, social workers and journalists are arrested and put behind bars, it is a totalitarian system,” said Victoria Hui, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame and a Hong Kong native. “The majority of Hong Kong people resist Beijing in their heart. How do you suppress the majority? This is why we see the big sweep of repression.”

It is the arrest of Lau and his compatriots, however, that most squarely smacks of the single-party system on the other side of Hong Kong’s borders, rights defenders say.

Hong Kong was not accustomed to political prisoners until the jailing of student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow in 2017 for their roles in the Umbrella Movement protests three years earlier that called for universal suffrage.

Today, hundreds, if not thousands, of Hong Kongers are facing prison time for their political beliefs. In addition to the 47 defendants charged with subversion, government critics including media tycoon Jimmy Lai and scores of pro-democracy protesters are facing prison for unlawful assembly, a charge derided as politically motivated by human rights advocates.

“There were no political prisoners in Hong Kong until the last few years,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The dynamics are reminiscent of not only what’s happening in China, but in peripheral regions like Xinjiang and Tibet in terms of the rhetoric of Chinese authorities. Sadly, it seems to me things are only going to get worse.”

Emilia Wong stands by a brick wall.
Emilia Wong has visited her longtime partner, Ventus Lau, in prison every day since his arrest.
(Hsiuwen Liu)

The scene of family and other loved ones outside the courthouse March 4 where the 47 defendants waited to see if they would be granted bail underscored the raw emotions stirring in the city of 7 million.

When activist and social worker Hendrick Lui’s foster mother learned her son had been remanded despite being told he could be released on bail, she could be heard wailing hysterically as she came down from the fourth-floor courtroom.

“We are loving people and we are righteous,” she said, crumpling to the ground. “These evil people; one day there will be retribution.”

Other family members then gathered and began sobbing together. Only 11 of the 47 defendants have since been released on bail.

The group’s members, including legal scholar Benny Tai, veteran pro-democracy activist “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and Joshua Wong, are being hailed as martyrs and heroes in the still sizable, but muzzled pro-democracy community. A Facebook page has been set up to profile each defendant.

Days before the bail hearing, many Hong Kongers were gripped by images of the pro-democracy figures following their summons and surrendering to police.

Activist Sam Cheung was photographed swapping his laced sneakers for slip-ons to adhere to prison rules. He then embraced his newlywed wife.

The New York-born activist Lester Shum also married his partner, former television journalist Nicole Yu, weeks before he turned himself in to police. He said he partly did so because spouses had more visitation rights in jail.

“I hope everyone will continue to support him,” Yu said of her husband outside the bail hearing.

It’s the thought of being forgotten that frightens Lau the most, said Wong, who lines up each day outside the jail for 15-minute visits.

More than 50 opposition and pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong have been arrested in the latest sign of Beijing’s intolerance of political dissent.

Lau could face up to a lifetime in prison on charges of election subversion and participation in pro-democracy protests. If he’s released, he’s worried he’ll enter an unfamiliar city — one without many friends and supporters who have fled overseas.

Lau, who grew up in a public housing tenement on the opposite side of Hong Kong away from the gleaming skyline over Victoria Harbor, belongs to a political movement that gathered momentum after the Umbrella protests, which were triggered by Beijing’s decision to screen candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive. Known as Localists, they wanted to preserve Hong Kong’s distinct culture and its Cantonese language and resist the mainland’s economic influence. Wong was part of a Localist student union called Spark.

Beijing loyalists accused the movement of promoting secession, and some of its adherents were criticized for prejudice against ordinary mainland Chinese.

Lau tried to appeal to visitors from China, organizing a rally in 2019 designed to demonstrate why Hong Kongers were demanding more freedom.

Wong had long wanted to keep their relationship private. Since his arrest, she’s become more outspoken, concluding that someone needed to be Lau’s advocate.

Part of the role includes the daily visits in which she takes orders for meal deliveries from approved restaurants so that Lau does not have to eat prison food.

One time she prepared to see Lau by visiting a hairstylist and getting extensions. Preoccupied with his predicament, Lau never noticed. Rather, she said, he asked about the well-being of the couple’s eight cats.

Since only two people can visit a day, Wong stands aside for Lau’s parents, who remain in a state of shock.

“His mom and dad are still unable to digest what happened,” Wong said. “I’ve tried to explain to them that he did nothing wrong.”

Wong said Lau is kept in solitary confinement, though she’s unsure if that’s due to COVID-19 precautions. He’s allowed to exercise for one hour a day.

Jail mate and former opposition party politician Gary Fan has taught Lau how to properly stretch and warm up. Activist Lee Yue-shun, before being released on bail, showed Lau some hip-hop dance moves.

Wong has contained her emotions, but she struggled to suppress tears when she first saw Lau in the olive green prison garb with his name stitched on.

It was only weeks ago the pair were up late chatting and playing board games. At that point, they didn’t want to fall asleep knowing their remaining time together was fleeting. To stifle the pain, Wong tells herself the couple’s sacrifice is part of something bigger.

“Although we are suffering, we’re participating in important history,” Wong said. “With this kind of mentality, you can think of yourself as something really small, a tiny bit of dust in the course of history, and it will make you feel better.”

Times staff writer Pierson reported from Singapore and special correspondent Liu from Hong Kong.


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