The political candidates represented the vanguard of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. Numbering in the dozens, they had planned to run for the city’s legislature in 2020, after months of turbulent protests calling for greater freedom from China.
By the time the election was held, more than a year later, none of the candidates could run. Most were in jail, where many still languish today, charged with subversion in the largest case yet involving the national security law Beijing imposed on the city in 2020. Their arrests laid bare the lengths to which China’s government would go to crush dissent in Hong Kong, which was long accustomed to many of the freedoms of speech and assembly found in the West.
After years of fits and starts, the trial involving the 47 pro-democracy lawmakers, academics and activists began on Monday at a courthouse in Hong Kong amid tight security. Large police vehicles lined the roads nearby as a line of more than 100 people snaked around the courthouse in the early morning, waiting to enter. Because there were so many defendants, the court broadcast the proceedings into several other rooms.
Of the 47 defendants, only 16 are contesting the charges. The rest entered guilty pleas, including Joshua Wong, one of the most globally recognized Hong Kong pro-democracy figures, and Benny Tai, a former law professor. As one of the defendants, Ng Kin-wai, a former district official, took the stand, he declared, sarcastically: “I tried to commit subversion against the totalitarian regime, but failed. I plead guilty.”
Most of the defendants, if not all, are expected to receive prison sentences, which could range from less than three years to life.
“The trial of the 47 represents a turning point in the crackdown because it reveals the true purpose of the national security law,” said Victoria Hui, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame who studies Hong Kong.
“They’re not targeting a small minority of people throwing petrol bombs,” Professor Hui said. “Those people have already been arrested. Instead, they’re targeting the legitimate opposition, people who believed there was still a little bit left to defend of Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedom.”
Already, the defendants’ arrests and lengthy detention have dealt a blow to the remaining vestiges of civil society. The 47 defendants, who comprise 42 opposition candidates and five election organizers, come from a cross-section of Hong Kong — politicians, academics, union organizers and journalists.
They include Claudia Mo, 66, a veteran journalist-turned-politician known to many as “Auntie Mo”; Eddie Chu, 45, a former legislator and early champion of the city’s “localist” movement, which aimed to preserve Hong Kong’s identity; Carol Ng, 52, an ex-flight attendant and labor activist; and Gwyneth Ho, 32, a former journalist, who famously reported from the scene of a mob attack on antigovernment demonstrators trapped in a subway station.
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To take stock of the group’s plight is to recognize how much Hong Kong has been transformed since pro-democracy protests erupted in 2019.
China’s subsequent crackdown brought changes that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago: an ideological makeover of the public education system; the demise of one of Asia’s most staunchly independent media industries; the arrest of Hong Kong’s highest-ranking Roman Catholic cleric, the nonagenarian Cardinal Joseph Zen; and the erasure of political opposition in Hong Kong’s legislature, paving the way for passage of pro-Beijing laws like a “patriots only” litmus test for political candidates. The high degree of autonomy Hong Kong was promised for 50 years after Britain returned the former colony to China in 1997 has all but eroded.
No change, however, has been more dramatic than those taking place in Hong Kong’s legal system, which has been superseded by the national security law — a harsh reality being felt acutely by the 47 democrats.
They are charged with trying to subvert state power for their roles in an unofficial “primary election.” The poll was an attempt by the opposition to select its best candidates, as part of a last-ditch effort to win enough seats in the legislature to block the government’s budget. The budget maneuver, sanctioned under Hong Kong law, could have dissolved the legislature and forced Carrie Lam, then the city’s top official, to step down.
Nearly three-quarters of the 47 democrats are currently in jail — and, in most cases, have been since they were formally charged nearly two years ago, on Feb. 28, 2021. Such long detention is unusual for Hong Kong, where defendants in other types of cases are often able to get bail. The national security law’s sweeping provisions, however, include a high threshold for bail, which in effect lets the authorities hold defendants for months or even years before trial. Critics say that amounts to a presumption that defendants are guilty.
Supporters of the activists say their detention has caused enormous mental strain, particularly for those held in solitary confinement. Some of them are already in prison, serving sentences on other charges. Sam Cheung, a 27-year-old elected official representing a small district, missed the birth of his first child. Tiffany Yuen, 29, another district official, was not permitted to leave prison for the funeral of her grandmother.
Mr. Tai, the former law professor, is expected to receive the harshest sentence at the end of the 90-day trial because of his role devising the plan to hold the primary election.
The security law requires judges to impose minimum sentences anywhere from three to 10 years, but defendants can receive lighter punishments if they testify against others. Prosecutors have already indicated that three of the 47 democrats who helped organize the primary had agreed to provide testimony.
Activists and legal experts say the strategy is designed to sow mistrust among the defendants and, combined with the grueling detentions, break their morale, to make them more willing to cooperate with prosecutors. The coercive tactic, scholars say, highlights another way that Hong Kong is adopting norms from mainland China.
“So far as you get a guilty plea, that gives the regime the opportunity to make the point that these wrongdoers have known the error in their ways,” said Eva Pils, a law scholar at Kings College London who studies China.
By pressuring the defendants individually, the authorities also undermine the democracy movement overall, said Ted Hui, a former lawmaker who fled Hong Kong a month before the 47 were arrested.
While acknowledging the emotional distress the group was under, Mr. Hui said that for any defendant to provide evidence that could implicate another would amount to a betrayal.
“I understand the circumstances, but I’m still angry and heartbroken,” Mr. Hui said by telephone from Adelaide, Australia. “I also cannot say it’s entirely their fault, because the circumstances are created by the pressures of the regime. This has hurt the democracy movement. That is one of the goals achieved by the regime — to divide us.”
The trial has stirred difficult and complicated emotions within the small community of lawmakers and activists who were able to flee Hong Kong before they could be arrested.
Nathan Law, a prominent pro-democracy advocate and candidate in the primary election who escaped days before the passage of the national security law, said it was painful to read about close friends and fellow activists such as Mr. Wong facing long prison terms.
“They were just participating in a primary election,” Mr. Law said from London. “None of us would think of that as something that would be named as subversion that could lead to years of imprisonment.”
“Through these cases, you also understand that the Hong Kong we used to know is gone,” he said.
The trial of the 47 is one of several national security cases winding their way through Hong Kong’s courts. Few have attracted more attention than that of Jimmy Lai, the 75-year-old founder of the tabloid newspaper Apple Daily, which was forced to close down in 2021. Mr. Lai, a longtime critic of China’s ruling Communist Party, has been serving a five-year, nine-month sentence on what human rights groups say are trumped-up charges of fraud. He is also facing trial on the national security offense of colluding with foreign forces.
The ratcheting-up of prosecutions marks the beginning of a new, more authoritarian era in Hong Kong, observers say, one in which political persecution will be used to strike fear in people so that few will consider protesting or challenging Beijing’s authority again.
“What they’re trying to do is to redraw the lines of acceptable, peaceful political activity,” said Thomas Kellogg, the executive director of the Center for Asian Law.