close
close

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

HONG KONG (AP) — Activist Chan Po-ying is allowed to visit her husband, Leung Kwok-hung, for only 15 minutes a day, separated by a Plexiglas barrier in a maximum security prison in Hong Kong.

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

The government had warned there could be legal consequences, but Chan did not stop former pro-democracy lawmaker Leung from participating in an unofficial 2020 primary 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, laughing.

Charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, Leung and other defendants are accused of seeking to paralyze the Hong Kong government and overthrow the city’s leader by gaining the legislative majority needed to veto budgets. The charge carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Those who have pleaded guilty are more likely to receive shorter prison sentences and will be sentenced at a later date.

“I think almost no one can be acquitted,” said Chan, chairman of the League of Social Democrats, one of the few remaining pro-democracy parties in the city. “I’m not optimistic. But I also hope that someone can get rid of 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.

Initially, Chan regarded Leung as a ‘troublesome man’, who was adamant about winning every debate. Nevertheless, they fell in love, and their bond transcended mere romance, Chan said; they are ‘arms in arms’.

A 2005 protest solidified their bond. The two were among the few Hong Kongers who stood firm against the overseas protesters, even after police fired tear gas and threatened arrest.

“Of those who stood with us in our youth, only the two of us stayed in place,” she said.

Activism in Hong Kong peaked in 2014 with the so-called Umbrella Movement, in which protesters used umbrellas to deflect police pepper spray during a nearly 80-day standoff. When Beijing did not relent, some young activists began advocating for Hong Kong’s independence.

The suppression took place quickly. Several pro-independence activists were banned from running in 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 the 2018 elections even though he had renounced his pro-independence stance. But that didn’t stop him from becoming more politically active and helping organize protests in 2019 that saw generations of Hong Kongers oppose a now-withdrawn bill that would have allowed people in the city to be extradited to mainland China.

The largest protest attracted an estimated two million people – more than a quarter of the city’s population.

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

In the years after the Umbrella Movement was suppressed, Wong recalled holding out hope for a more democratic Hong Kong, despite the city’s gloomy mood.

“2019 represented a culmination of such hope,” she said. But the high expectations were short-lived.

THE PRIMARY VOICE AND THE CLAMPDOWN

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

Just a week later, a city official warned that the pro-democracy primaries could 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 intended to shortlist candidates who would then run for official parliamentary elections, which are typically dominated by the pro-Beijing camp. They hoped that the government, with a legislative majority, would listen to their demands.

But things didn’t go as planned.

After the primaries, Beijing said the vote called into question the security law, which critics say is broadly applied to anything the government says 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, more than 50 former lawmakers and democracy advocates were arrested under the national security law. Authorities accused them of planning to put enough people in power to indiscriminately veto budgets, bringing government functions to a standstill and forcing the city’s leader to resign.

Of those arrested, 47 were charged and brought to court for days-long bail hearings, with some hospitalized due to fatigue and others unable to shower for days. Most suspects were denied bail.

LIVES INCREASED

After Lau was taken into custody, Wong spent her time arranging food and book deliveries for him, handling media interviews about the case, arranging visits from his friends and assisting him with his application for university studies to resume during his captivity.

Every day, Wong felt utterly exhausted as she also struggled with the shock of Lau’s persecution. One day, when she received clothes that Lau had worn during his detention and which still carried his scent, she burst into tears.

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

Even for experienced activists like Chan, the situation was painful. For her, 2021 was suffocating. After Leung was denied bail, Chan found herself crying during her commute to work for no particular reason.

Months after the 47 activists were prosecuted, arrests of the top management of Apple Daily and Stand News – prominent media outlets known for their critical reporting of the government – ​​forced them to close down. Dozens of social groups have been dissolved. Some members of Chan’s League of Social Democrats were also jailed.

That year, Chan wondered every day what would happen next. “I felt lonely, but I had so many things to deal with,” she said.

LIFE IN DETENTION

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

For Wong, staying with Lau is a logical 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 pushes her to be a better person — when he picked up his reading pace, Wong followed suit. Wong in turn criticized Lau’s lyrics. Lau pursued his translation degree and Wong became a regular at the gym.

“I don’t just stand still; “I ran the whole time, and so did he,” she said.

Chan said life in detention has left Leung visibly thinner and depressed. Despite their fiery temperament, Leung sometimes avoids arguments during their short visits.

“He cherishes our 15 minutes together,” Chan said. “But I also feel very upset because this is not the real him.”

In the most optimistic scenario, it could take another three to four years before Leung is 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 restrict civil liberties.

Chan knows her actions may not have a significant impact, but she says persevering in their respective roles still makes sense.

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

Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.

Back To Top