Hong Kong authorities have charged three leaders of last fall’s massive pro-democracy demonstrations with offenses that could send them to prison for as long as five years. The charges stemmed from the night last September when Joshua Wong, Alex Chow, and Nathan Law scaled a fence and broke into a public area outside the city’s government offices known as Civic Square. Others participated but these three were charged because they led the action.
The students were leaders of a class boycott called in response to Beijing’s decision, the previous June, to block democratic elections in 2017 for the territory’s top official, the chief executive. Beijing wanted to give every Hong Kong adult a vote—but also control the slate of candidates, with loyalty to Beijing and the Communist Party as a litmus test.
In days after last’s September incident, the boycott merged with the Occupy Central movement, which planned a sit-in protest in Hong Kong’s central business district, to become the Umbrella Movement. For 10 weeks they brought traffic and business to a halt in downtown Hong Kong. The movement took its name from the umbrellas protesters used to shield themselves from police teargas.
The treatment of Wong, Chow, and Law contrasts sharply with that of seven policemen arrested in the beating of a Democratic Party activist, Ken Tsang, in the early hours of October 15th last year. Video captured police leading Tsang away, handcuffed, behind a nearby building, where they kicked him as he lay on the ground. Their prosecution remains in limbo.
Beijing guaranteed itself the right to intervene in the judicial system in important ways when it took over in 1997. A new system of political appointments also made the top legal post, the secretary for justice,accountable to the chief executive, who is himself appointed by Beijing. Previously, a civil servant held the justice post and there was a clear distinction between policy and prosecution.
The current secretary of justice, Rimsky Yuen, was one of those leading the effort to implement Beijing’s plan to keep the method of choosing the chief executive undemocratic, the very issue that inspired the demonstrations. Prior to taking up the post, he was a member of a mainland Communist advisory body.
In a democracy, court proceedings are allowed deference and the other branches and politicians refrain from criticizing them. There is no point in pretending that Hong Kong’s revered legal system has not suffered as a result of Communist rule. The cases against the student leaders, and the handling of the police beating of Ken Tsang, are a sign of politicization. The only question is whether this trend will continue. If it does, more people like Wong, Chow, and Law, who are committed to bringing about democracy in Hong Kong, will be dealt with more harshly and unfairly in the future.