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On Sunday, 47 leaders and pro-democracy activists were charged under China’s controversial National Security Law, leading to protests in support of those charged or to champion the pro-democracy cause.
The 47 were among the over 50 who were arrested in January and released on bail. They were charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion.” If convicted, they could face life in prison.
The charges stem from last year’s primary election, which was organized by pro-democracy activists against the wishes of the government which postponed the election citing COVID-19 risks. Over 600,000 participated in the primary election, which was held just days after the National Security Law was enacted.
Primary winners Tiffany Yuen, Lester Shum, Owen Chow, and Eddie Chu were among those charged Sunday. The 27-year-old Yuen gave an emotional interview before stepping into the police station, saying,
“None of us knew the situation would become like this today. We cannot judge whether our choices were right or wrong based on the consequences now. This was our responsibility, which as a Hong Konger, you want to bear in that moment.”
Chinese authorities claim the primary was an attempt to paralyze the government, a violation of the National Security Law, which prohibits attempts to subvert the government through secession, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. The law has been used to silence political opposition.
The CCP also charged a former journalist, a nurse who led a strike of medical workers in the early days of the pandemic, a prominent pro-democracy activist who is already in jail for a different infraction, and several former legislators.
As reported by the Washington Post,
“The charges mean that every prominent and even moderate opposition voice in Hong Kong is either in jail or in exile, crushing the city’s democratic aspirations as Beijing tightens its grips on its core institutions.”
Hundreds gathered to protest the charges. One protestor said,
“This is the most ridiculous arrest in the history of Hong Kong. But I have confidence in our judicial system to restore justice. It’s the last line of defense.”
Some chanted slogans like “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times!” and “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong!”
Meanwhile, the government is seeking to strengthen its control by altering the political process. One such law requires those running for office to take an oath of loyalty to the local government and to Beijing’s control, allowing only “patriots” to hold office. Chinese lawmakers are also expected to vote on a change that would eliminate some or all of the city’s district councillors who vote on the city’s leadership. They would be replaced with members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
China’s crackdown on free speech and political opposition under the auspices of “national security” is turning Hong Kong, once a beacon of freedom, into a police state. Its attempts to take more control from the people of Hong Kong and consolidate it in Beijing further reveal that the Chinese Communist Party has no intention of honoring its promises of autonomy for Hong Kong.
The CCP is using language to distort the debate, describing those loyal to Beijing as “patriots” while pro-democracy activists are labeled as “subversive” or “separatists.” There are parallels to the West, where orthodoxy is enforced through tech censorship, cancel culture, and labeling any person who challenges the status quo as a “threat to democracy.”
As the left looks to crack down on conservatives and has even floated the idea of “security laws,” it is important to remember that political speech is not violence and disagreement is not treason. Hong Kong is a case study in what happens when the government criminalizes free speech and silences its opponents and critics.