Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets here in Hong Kong yesterday, sweltering under unrelenting 95ºF summer sun, to express their outrage at the jailing of three young activists.
Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow were key leaders of the Umbrella Movement that shut down the center of the city in late 2014, as young people in particular demanded democracy for their hometown. They now find themselves behind bars for six to eight months on politically motivated charges and an unusual appeal by the government that their original punishments -- which allowed them to win seats in the government -- were not harsh enough.
The convictions smack of political influence and double jeopardy. Wong and Law were originally sentenced to community service for unlawful assembly and inciting others to join in -- a common-sense penalty for a minor crime. Chow got a suspended jail sentence so he could study at the London School of Economics.
But the Hong Kong government appealed successfully against those penalties, handed down by a magistrate. The case will now likely go to Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal. Meantime, the youngsters have had their heads shaved and live off fish and congee.
The convictions call into question any commitments that Beijing makes on the world stage. The mainland Chinese government is very clearly tampering with the laws and systems of Hong Kong so that it gets its way. While this has yet to make itself felt commercially, you have to wonder how the courts will rule when a politically connected state-owned enterprise from China finds itself in a high-profile dispute in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is meant to operate under the principle of "One Country, Two Systems," which allows the city to keep its own laws, court system, police, immigration and financial markets for 50 years, until 2047. But it is increasingly clear that "One Country, Two Systems" is a sham.
Chinese security forces operate in the city when they need to do so. That much became clear when five Hong Kong-based booksellers disappeared from abroad, only to re-appear in China -- at times with no record of ever having left Hong Kong.
The same thing happened again this February. Billionaire Xiao Jianhua, a financier whose connections run to the very highest levels of China's government -- he has expedited deals for the family of Chinese President Xi Jinping -- was abducted from Hong Kong's Four Seasons, where he lived in exile. Closed-circuit TV images showed him being escorted away by burly men in suits at a time China was investigating unusual movements in the mainland stock markets. He has not been seen since.
Hong Kong's legal system is the envy of Asia. It is chosen as a jurisdiction for arbitration and for the registration of China-related contracts and deals in particular, because of is precedent-based system that has its roots in British law. But it is suffering a loss of its judicial independence, its freedom of speech, and the separate identity promised in 1997.
Beijing constantly hands down "interpretations" of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's constitution. These are verdicts not of how the law actually does read, but how it should read in the eyes of mainland China. Mainland Chinese courts have already ruled that they are the ultimate power above and beyond Hong Kong's courts, rendering them ultimately meaningless on any matter that matters to Beijing.
The trio were not surprised to be sentenced to jail, and other democracy leaders charged over the 2014 demonstrations can now expect the same treatment. But jail time does disqualify them from holding public office for five years -- no one who has served more than three months can do so -- and this is one of the real goals behind the sentences.
"The government wanted to stop us from running in elections and directly suppress our movement," Wong, who became the face of the democracy movement at the age of 17, said. "There's no longer rule of law in Hong Kong. It's rule by law."
He was equally defiant by Tweet. "They can silence protests, remove us from the legislature and lock us up. But they will not win the hearts and minds of Hong Kongers," he said.
Hong Kong's legal community has come out en masse to describe the jail sentences as by the book and entirely on the legal merits, free of any political influence at all. But they are not.
The trumped-up charges are of "unlawful assembly." The students led the rush over the barricades as student activists broke into the east wing of the government forecourt at government headquarters, a space normally approved for demonstrations and making your point, but one that had been closed for "security reasons" on Sept. 26.
It was closed because the Hong Kong government knew there would be trouble. Beijing has committed to giving Hong Kong democracy, a promise it made in order to get its hands on Hong Kong when the British surrendered it in 1997. Beijing then did give Hong Kong "one man, one vote" in the 2017 vote for the city's leader, the chief executive.
But China ruled that Hong Kongers could only pick from two or three candidates, themselves hand-picked by Beijing. Voting, in other words, would just validate a selection Beijing had already made.
Wong, Law and Chow broke into in a space that had deliberately been closed off to prevent pro-democracy demonstrations. If you are protesting against this injustice, and since you're protesting against the very government itself, are you supposed to make your point by following that government's rules as to where -- way at the back and totally out of sound and sight -- you're allowed to protest?
The three judges who handed down the verdict from the Court of Appeal said they were not jailing the activists for exercising their freedom of assembly. But they did say this should serve as a deterrent to any other upstart youngsters who get too many ideas about democracy.
"In recent years, there's been an unhealthy trend in Hong Kong society," Judge Wally Yeung wrote in his decision. "Some people use the pursuit of ideals ... as an excuse to take illegal action."
I've had a shift in thinking when it comes to the Hong Kong government. I used to believe he government was appointed from Beijing-approved candidates, but generally operated on Hong Kong's behalf.
That changed with the election of C.Y. Leung. He stepped down in favor of his replacement, Carrie Lam, the former No. 2 in the administration, who took office on July 1. She takes his lead.
Now I view the Hong Kong government as being, essentially, an extension of Beijing. It no longer represents Hong Kong to Beijing -- it works in the other direction, listening to Beijing and telling Hong Kong what's going to happen. It does not represent the city. It represents the Communist Party, in Hong Kong.
China does have its own office in Hong Kong, the "Liaison Office" of the Central People's Government. But as the line blurs between the powers in Beijing and those in the chief executive's office, it's hardly necessary. Our own courts and officials will deliver any message that the Chinese powers want.
There are calls already for the three young men to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. A victory would echo that of Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese dissident who won the prize in and died in police custody in July.
Liu became the first Nobel Peace Prize laureate to die in state custody since Carl von Ossiezky, a German pacifist and opponent of the Nazis who won in 1935 and died under German guard in 1938.
Liu's wife, Liu Xia, remains missing, presumed to be under detention by the Chinese authorities. A dodgy video appeared on YouTube on Friday in which she said she's recovering from her husband's death. It's clearly for foreign consumption, since YouTube is one of many sites that is censored and unavailable in China.