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Stop the shameful kowtowing to China: Basic rights and the rule of law are under fire in Hong Kong

I lived in Hong Kong for the first five years after its handover to China. I know Hong Kong’s political prisoners Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow personally. For those two reasons alone, and because I care passionately about freedom, human rights and the rule of law, Thursday 17 August was a dark day for me, and an even darker one for Hong Kong.

I happened to be having four days’ holiday at the end of a long and busy working visit to Indonesia. I was in need of a break and was looking forward to putting my feet up in the sun. But when three young people are imprisoned simply because of their political convictions, and when those three young people are your friends, and when you yourself are a human rights activist, you don’t hesitate.

political prisoner occupy activist protest rally democracy

Photo: In-Media.

When those three young people come from a city that has given you happy memories, and when they are as bright, principled, courageous, thoughtful and impressive as Joshua, Nathan and Alex, and when they stand for values you have devoted your entire adult life to pursuing, you can’t ignore their plight. And so I spent the rest of my time by the pool or at the beach giving media interviews, drafting statements and trying to marshal an international outcry. It was the very least I could do. Anyone with a conscience would have done the same.

The imprisonment of Joshua, Nathan and Alex, for leading the Umbrella Movement, one of the most peaceful mass protests in modern history, is one of the most grotesque miscarriages of justice I have seen. Not in its severity – I know political prisoners in mainland China, Burma, East Timor, The Maldives and North Korea who have faced sentences ten, twenty, in some cases even a hundred times longer, in conditions far worse than Hong Kong’s jails – but in its symbolism. Hong Kong used to be the one part of China that was still free, where people could still protest without fear, where the rule of law and basic rights still meant something. No longer.

Joshua Wong Nathan Law Alex Chow

Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, Alex Chow. Photo: Joshua Wong.

The Hong Kong government – at Beijing’s bidding – has trampled on the rule of law, by interfering so overtly in their case. A year ago, Joshua and Nathan went on trial and a court sentenced them to community service – 80 and 120 hours respectively – for violating the Public Order Ordinance. They served their community service, even though the law itself has been criticized by the United Nations Human Rights Committee and violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. That should have been the end of it.

But in flagrant violation of the legal principle known as “double jeopardy” – which should prevent a person being tried for the same ‘crime’ twice – the Hong Kong government appealed, against the prosecutor’s wishes, and sought a tougher sentence. Last Thursday the Court of Appeal jailed Joshua for six months and Nathan for eight. Alex, who had been given a three-week suspended sentence a year ago, is now serving a seven-month sentence.

In June 2014, the Chinese government issued a White Paper on Hong Kong in seven languages, declaring that Beijing has “comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong” – instead of “the high degree of autonomy” provided for in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law. China’s Communist Party regime also announced that Hong Kong’s judges are merely “administrators” with “the responsibility of safeguarding the country’s sovereignty, security and developmental interests”. As such, they must love the country and be “subject to oversight by the central government”. Viewed with this background, last Thursday’s judgment creates the perception that Beijing has successfully gained control of Hong Kong’s courts.

In April 2016, Kemal Bokhary, a retired judge, said that his warning, made four years previously, of “a storm of unprecedented ferocity” facing the judiciary has now come about. “The things which were second nature to you and I may recede to the back row where judicial independence is eroded,” he added. The independence of the judiciary, a pillar of Hong Kong, has now been exposed for all to see as a charade, now at the beck and call of the Chinese Communist Party.

High Court

The High Court, Admiralty. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Of the trio, Nathan was the first I got to know. Just under a year ago, aged 23, he came to London, as Hong Kong’s youngest elected member of the Legislative Council. He was proud of his role but with no hint of arrogance – he humbly wanted to use his position as a legislator to serve his constituents and fight for Hong Kong’s freedoms. I took him to meet Parliamentarians in London from all parties, including the Speaker of the House of Commons, and everyone was deeply impressed by his conviction and maturity. He was a great representative of Hong Kong – smart and inspiring, yet humble, fun and eager to learn.

I met Joshua briefly the previous year, and was in contact with him when he gave evidence to the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission for our enquiry on China last year, which resulted in a damning report – The Darkest Moment: The Crackdown on Human Rights in China 2013-2016 – with a chapter on Hong Kong. I came to know Joshua better earlier this year when he came to London and asked me to help arrange meetings. Again, I took him to meet Parliamentarians of all parties, as well as think-tanks and journalists. Joshua has been on the front-cover of TIME, appeared on countless news channels, is the subject of a Netflix documentary film and has met international politicians from US Senator Marco Rubio and Congressional Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to the UK’s former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown, yet it shows no sign of going to his head. Hong Kong’s former Governor Chris Patten put it well when he met him for the first time and Joshua told him what an honour it was. Lord Patten laughed and said: “You’re honoured? On the contrary, it is absolutely my honour.” In a letter to the Financial Times, Lord Patten described last Thursday’s verdict as “deplorable”.

police van occupy activists

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

I met Alex a few weeks later, in a student bar at the London School of Economics. Immediately he exuded the same spirit as Nathan and Joshua. A quiet, thoughtful, intelligent, profound and yet ultimately very simple conviction that the people of Hong Kong were promised certain values when the territory was handed over to Chinese sovereignty twenty years ago. A deep, passionate, dignified but not unreasonable belief that the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s constitution known as the Basic Law provides for the protection of human rights, the rule of law and – by 2017 – universal suffrage. And a courteous, intelligent, unflinching but not unthinking burning desire to defend Hong Kong’s autonomy under the principle of “one country, two systems”. Those are the simple values for which Joshua, Nathan and Alex stand. And it is for those values that they have been jailed.

Those values are exhibited in messages Joshua and Alex issued immediately upon sentencing. In a long and beautiful statement, Alex urged supporters not to condemn the judges. “The only thing we can do is to let us, who have similar belief, become [people] with love, courage and compassion”, he wrote. “Please let us sow altogether, with love, courage, tenderness and care to the earth and fight back for dignity, life, and the bright future we deserve to have”.

In a series of tweets Joshua wrote: “You can lock up our bodies, but not our minds! We want democracy in Hong Kong. And we will not give up. 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. Imprisoning us will not extinguish Hongkongers’ desire for universal suffrage. We are stronger, more determined, and we will win.”

Of course Joshua, Nathan and Alex are not alone. Thirteen others were jailed last week for unlawful assembly, and others face trial. Edward Leung and other pro-democracy activists accused of rioting in Mong Kok in February last year could face much stiffer sentences. Such injustice is an outrage. Even for those who may technically have broken the law, a fine, some community service or at most a few days in detention might be acceptable. But months or years behind bars, disqualifying them from running for future political office for five years and from most employment opportunities, reeks of a political vendetta that strikes a nail in the coffin of Hong Kong’s freedoms. It is Beijing’s agenda to eliminate the democratic opposition in Hong Kong.

The international community must speak out – and stop its shameful kowtowing to China. Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration the United Kingdom has a particular responsibility to do so. Until now its response to this verdict, as on other examples of the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms in recent years, has been – at best – tepid and mostly mute. Britain owes it to the people of Hong Kong, and especially the young generation, at least to protest this outrageous miscarriage of justice. The United States must implement the Bill introduced by Senator Marco Rubio, to defend Hong Kong’s democracy, and the European Union must similarly act.

political prisoner occupy activist protest rally democracy

Photo: PH Yang.

Joshua, Nathan and Alex were jailed a little over a month after the death of China’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and most famous political prisoner, Liu Xiaobo. “In the past,” said student activist Derek Lam, “when we chant ‘release political prisoners,’ we’re referring to [those in China] … but now it’s Hong Kong.” In previous months they had already endured sustained attack. They had faced physical assault, been described by pro-Beijing media as “race traitors“, and Nathan was removed from his seat in the legislature simply for quoting Mahatma Gandhi when he took his oath. As 25 eminent international figures said in a joint statement last week, and as Lord Patten and Senator Rubio, among others, echoed, the three political prisoners now behind bars, and their colleagues, deserve to be honoured and supported – not imprisoned. They may well be going down a well-trodden path of dissent and imprisonment, in the footsteps of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi. Perhaps they will follow in Liu Xiaobo’s footsteps as Nobel Laureates, as the New York Times has proposed. Their names will be remembered long after their jailors’ have been forgotten. It is now up to others to continue their struggle.

This is a longer version of an article originally published in the Huffington Post.

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Stop the shameful kowtowing to China: Basic rights and the rule of law are under fire in Hong Kong