The Hong Kong government’s all-out attack on Demosistō and League of Social Democrats
How do you destroy your political adversary in a society that supposedly has rule of law and protects civil and political rights (some at least, to some degree)? The HK government’s post-Umbrella Movement attacks on Demosisto and LSD are a case study.
The HK government is cracking down on the pro-democracy movement in general and has been for some time. Since the Umbrella Movement of 2014, it has brought 39 legal cases against 26 pro-democracy leaders, successfully applied for High Court judicial reviews which banned from office six elected pro-democracy Legislative Council members and effectively cancelled the votes of over 180,000 voters, and prosecuted dozens of others pro-democracy activists. In this week alone, it has successfully appealed the original sentences of 16 pro-democracy activists, including Umbrella Movement leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, Alex Chow and Raphael Wong, with the High Court sentencing them to between six and thirteen months in prison for the nonviolent protest-related crime of unlawful assembly.
But within the pro-democracy movement, Demosistō and LSD have been hit particularly hard. Of those 39 legal cases brought against pro-democracy leaders, six are against Demosistō and 10 against LSD.
Joshua Wong, Secretary General of Demosistō, has faced three prosecutions. In addition to Joshua’s unlawful assembly conviction for occupying Civic Square on 26 September 2014, for which he was yesterday sentenced to seven months in prison, on 6 July, he acknowledged contempt of court in relation to the clearance of the Mong Kok occupation on 26 November 2014. In that case, he’s on trial together with 20 others, half of whom have refused to acknowledge contempt, and the judge has said he will consider sentencing once the trial concludes, probably within the next month. Joshua could very well receive additional time in prison. Joshua has previously been acquitted of obstructing police for a June 2014 protest against the White Paper at the Chinese government Liaison Office.
Nathan Law, chair of Demosistō, has faced two criminal prosecutions and a judicial review. The prosecutions are for the same cases as Joshua’s above. He was acquitted of obstructing police at the White Paper protest, sentenced to eight months in prison for inciting unlawful assembly in relation to the Civic Square occupation, and ejected from Legco by the High Court for using an inflection in his pronunciation of the People’s Republic of China during the Legco swearing-in ceremony which the judge, following a Basic Law interpretation by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, found to be lacking in “solemnity”. As many have pointed out, the prison sentences also mean that Nathan and Joshua will be disqualified from running for elected office for the next five years.
In addition to Joshua and Nathan, two other core members of Demosistō, Derek Lam and Ivan Lam, also face prosecutions. Both Derek and Ivan are to go on trial together with seven others on 23 August for a 6 November 2016 protest against the NPCSC Basic Law interpretation that eventually lead to Nathan’s ejection from Legco, Derek for inciting disorderly conduct and Ivan for unlawful assembly. Ivan was this week sentenced to 13 months in prison for unlawful assembly for a protest in June 2014 in Civic Square against an HK government northeast New Territories development project. That protest lead to the government closing Civic Square to the public. Joshua, Nathan and Alex Chow have just been sentenced to prison for re-occupying Civic Square in September that year.
Raphael Wong, vice-chair of LSD, has faced four prosecutions. Together with Ivan (see above) and 11 others, he was sentenced this week to thirteen months in prison for unlawful assembly. He was acquitted of obstructing police for the same June 2014 White Paper protest as Joshua and Nathan. And he’s currently on trial in the same case as Joshua for contempt of court for the 26 November 2014 Mong Kok occupation clearance. Unlike Joshua, he’s refused to acknowledge contempt. The verdict will most likely be within a matter of weeks. Raphael is also one of the Umbrella Movement 9 who will go on trial on 19 September. He faces two counts of inciting public nuisance.
Long Hair (Leung Kwok-hung), former chair of LSD, has faced two criminal prosecutions and one judicial review. He was acquitted of misconduct in public office on 31 July over his alleged failure to declare HK$250,000 donation from Jimmy Lai. His trial for contempt of Legco related to a November 2016 incident in which he grabbed some papers belonging to a government minister will begin soon. Like Nathan, he was disqualified from Legco by the High Court on 14 July over his swearing-in.
Avery Ng, chair of LSD, faces three prosecutions. He is currently on trial for assaulting a police officer with a thrown sandwich at a September 2016 protest against Chief Executive CY Leung on Legco election day. He will face trial for disclosing the identity of a person under investigation by the Independent Commission Against Corruption. And like Derek and Ivan, he goes on trial on 23 August in relation to the protest against the NPCSC Basic Law interpretation; in his case, the charge consists of two counts of disorderly conduct.
Dickson Chau Ka-faat, LSD deputy secretary general will be on trial for the same case, on charges of obstructing and assaulting police.
As you can see, quite a few of these cases involve collaboration between Demosistō and LSD. The two were the leaders of the Black Bauhinia protest on 28 June against the treatment of Liu Xiaobo and the 20th anniversary of the handover of HK from the UK to China. Altogether, 26 were arrested, including Nathan Law, Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, Long Hair, Avery Ng, Raphael Wong and several other members of Demosistō and LSD. So far, no charges have been brought, but they very well may be.
It’s not only through the courts that the HK government has gone on the attack, presumably with the intention of destroying the organizations. Demosistō was founded in early 2016. At that time, it applied to the Companies Registry, a governmental agency. In HK, there’s no law about political parties, so parties typically register as companies in order to become legally recognized entities. It usually takes a matter of days for an application to be approved. Indeed, HK is renowned as one of the easiest places in the world to start a business. But nearly a year and a half later, Demosistō still has received no response to its application. In practice, this means it cannot open a bank account in its name, which in turn makes it more difficult to solicit donations. Unless you hand-deliver your donation, the only way you can get it to the party is to send a cheque to Joshua Wong’s P.O. Box in Wan Chai, this for one of the most internet-savvy parties in HK.
Why is the HK government going so hard after these groups? Arguably because they’re the ones who embarrass the government the most. LSD is one of the most progressive and assertive pro-democracy parties. Demosistō is arguably an even greater threat as it is in the forefront of the HK self-determination movement that is an outgrowth of the Umbrella Movement. It also represents the more assertive political role of young people in HK since the Umbrella Movement. The HK government is acting ever more like the Communist Party: It wants to cut off the head of the chicken to scare the monkeys. The striking victories of many of the newly formed political groups in the September 2016 Legco elections, many of whom were leaders in the Umbrella Movement, was the last straw. The Communist Party and HK government could not stand to have such a strident political opposition inside of the formal political structure, even though it is rigged to ensure pro-Communist Party dominance. Ever since then, Communist Party and HK government efforts to eject the newly elected from Legco and eviscerate their parties have been stepped up.
In appealing the sentences of the 16 convicted of unlawful assembly, the government was trying, as the Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen put it, to get the High Court to “lay down guidelines for sentencing for these kind [sic] of crimes”. In other words, to send the message that you will be punished much more severely than in the past for taking part in what’s either at the time or retrospectively considered an unlawful assembly. That is potentially chilling to the right of freedom of assembly. The crime of unlawful assembly falls under the already problematic Public Order Ordinance. For years, both the UN Human Rights Committee and Human Rights Watch have said POO needs to be revised to meet international standards and avoid being used to unreasonably restrict the right to freedom of assembly or grant arbitrary powers to police. But rather than fix POO, the HK government is sending a warning that the government is getting tough on behavior at public gatherings, with all the attendant risks that brings of unreasonable restrictions on the right to freedom of assembly.
Now, when the HK government invokes “rule of law”, I’m sickened: Coming from their mouths, it sounds the same as from the mouths of Communist Party officials (ie, rule by law). How can these people who have refused to comply with the Basic Law and international law by denying the basic human right of universal suffrage to the people of HK invoke the rule of law to oppress the very people fighting for that right? It’s perverse.
Overall, behind the persecution of Demosistō and LSD is the government’s vision, inspired if not directed by the Communist Party, of a “managed” society: Everyone should behave just as the government wishes and all shall be fine. Instructive is that the government has brought relatively few prosecutions against traditional pan-democrats, even though they represent a much higher percentage of those arrested during the Umbrella Movement, presumably because, overall, they are seen to be generally “well behaved”. Indeed, their demands remain about the same as they were before the Umbrella Movement, genuine universal suffrage as promised in the Basic Law, whereas most of the groups that have come up since the Umbrella Movement, such as Demosistō, have given up on that possibility and are seeking self-determination or, in some cases, independence.
Apart from the human rights abuses perpetrated by the HK government on Demosistō, LSD and others in the pro-democracy movement, what damage have the attacks caused? After all, HK is already undemocratic. It suffers a perpetual governance crisis due to the illegitimacy (and from the perspective of international law, illegality) of the unelected government, coupled with the fact that it has shown itself consistently to be primarily an administrative organ of the Communist Party rather than a representative of the HK people. So how could what it’s doing now make things worse? Well, in order to go after political opponents, it is compromising the police force, the judiciary and the Legislative Council. All are institutions important to a well-functioning, fair and democratic society. Of course, it presumably wishes to compromise these entities, or doesn’t care, or considers such compromised institutions more “loyal” and “patriotic”, echoing the 2014 White Paper statement that the judiciary is an administrative organ whose functionaries must be “patriotic”. It certainly represents yet another significant step backwards in the political development of HK, a potential slide toward greater authoritarianism.
What we the people of HK owe Demosistō and LSD is precisely what Joshua Wong said before he went to prison: We have to stay strong, and we have to carry on. The Communist Party and HK government’s attacks on the pro-democracy movement are meant, among other things, to affect the general atmosphere in HK, and they certainly have. I spend a lot of time arguing with people over their pessimism. It’s not that there isn’t reason to be pessimistic; the problem comes when the pessimism leads to defeatism, resignation, fatalism, apathy, giving up. That’s just what the Communist Party wants. If HK people follow the lead of Demosistō and LSD, we will win in the long run. The Communist Party’s policy on HK is unsustainable because in order to control it, it must destroy it. As long as HK people continue to resist, democracy and self-determination will prevail. In this sense, as always, the freedom struggle is as much a struggle within ourselves as with our adversary.