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Views from behind bars: can Hong Kong’s imprisoned activists make their voices heard?

Officials are no doubt trying to think what else they can do to eliminate his influence. But even though political life has now been reduced to a mere shadow of what Hongkongers once hoped it might be under Chinese post-colonial rule, Beijing’s “one-country, two-systems” formula is still making a difference.

If Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, as chief promoter of a campaign that resulted in a 79-day street blockade, had been jailed across the border in any mainland city, he would never be heard from again, at least not until his prison sentence had been served and most likely long after that as well.

benny tai

Benny Tai. Photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

But Hong Kong is still different enough that the voice may be temporarily silenced but the message carries on. After years of waiting for their trial to begin, and heard in court, and for the inevitable guilty verdicts to be handed down, Professors Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man were given 16-month prison sentences, to begin immediately as of April 24.

They, along with Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, were the three main leaders of Hong Kong’s 2014 Occupy Central – which morphed into the Umbrella Movement. Chu received a suspended sentence on compassionate grounds due to his age and ill-health.

Their campaign is nevertheless continuing by other means. Prisoners in Hong Kong do not have access to the internet, but they can write letters and even publish articles, and receive visitors – all carefully monitored, of course. The Occupy veterans are not short of friends and followers to take it from there.

Both Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man are carrying on in their usual way, except that now their pieces on Apple Daily’s op-ed page carry an eye-catching “letters from prison” tagline. They have more time on their hands, so their contributions are even more frequent than before.

benny tai chan kin-man chu yiu-ming

The ‘Occupy trio’ of Chan Kin-man, Benny Tai, and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

They are the most prolific, but they are not alone. Two others whose prison missives have made headlines amid the massive backlash provoked by Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s abortive extradition law are Edward Leung Tin-kei and Raphael Wong Ho-ming.

For anyone who missed it, the extradition bill was introduced last February to immediate criticism that has since grown into Hong Kong’s biggest ever mass protest movement. The proposed new law, since withdrawn from the legislative calendar, would have allowed the transfer of criminal suspects to all jurisdictions with which Hong Kong does not yet have formal extradition agreements, including China.

Protests, violence and elections: Benny Tai

Until the last couple of weeks, when the extradition bill protests escalated into repeated outbursts of street violence, Tai was generating the most waves, just as he had done since early 2013. That was when he first sparked democratic imaginations with his Occupy Central idea.

At the time, he and others hoped it would convince Beijing to allow long-premised universal suffrage elections here. It did not.

Today, from his maximum-security cell in Shek Pik Prison on Lantau Island, he offers not just advice to protesters but explanations as well, to contradict the misinformation that pervades all official attempts to explain the mass resistance the Hong Kong government has provoked.

shek pik prison

Shek Pik Prison. File Photo: GovHK.

Most dramatic have been his handwritten letters to Agence France Presse, one dated June 23 the other July 21. He was troubled by the violence but chose his words carefully. Tai had worked tirelessly in 2013-14, to ensure that his Occupy Central campaign adhered to the tradition of non-violent civil disobedience.

In his July 21 letter, he noted that people seemed more inclined now to accept the consequences of disruptive behaviour. He was writing after the invasion and trashing of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on July First. The invaders had left behind a spray-painted message to explain themselves: “You have taught me that peaceful protest is useless”.

Hongkongers traditionally abhor such actions and pundits immediately predicted that opinion would turn against the protesters as a result. But that did not happen. Instead, momentum has continued to build in their favour, with parents, bankers, and even civil servants coming out to demonstrate support.

Now, months after it first began to attract attention in April, the extradition bill has evolved to include the original demand of Benny Tai’s 2014 campaign – for universal suffrage elections that Beijing had promised, but then reneged on in 2014-15.

occupy umbrella movement anniversary

Photo: Tom Gurndy/HKFP.

In his earlier letter, Tai wrote that the anti-extradition movement “is a strike back by Hong Kong people against the interference by the Chinese Communist Party.” Later he wrote that since “all institutional channels to raise their objections have been blocked” – due to the ongoing political pacification campaign that has impacted the Legislative Council especially – the concerned public is now turning to other means. But for Tai, his original aims still seem to dominate.

This line of reasoning – not about violence but the value of elections – was nevertheless provocative enough to draw immediate fire from the other side. In his June 27 Apple Daily post, Benny Tai wrote that the new anti-extradition bill protest had already succeeded in bringing a great change to Hong Kong’s political atmosphere.

Yet the change was not enough. Why? Because it had not succeeded in achieving Carrie Lam’s resignation or winning any meaningful concessions. Why was that? Because Bejing still controls Hong Kong’s pro-establishment forces and the entire governing structure. Therefore, besides protesting on street corners, anti-establishment pro-democracy partisans must seek other ways to penetrate the political system.

And what might those ways be? Why, through elections, of course: the District Council election this coming November, and the Legislative Council election next year. More seats on all those councils would also mean more seats on the establishment-dominated Election Committee. This would be selected in 2021 and responsible for anointing the next Chief Executive, in 2022. That would be Carrie Lam’s successor, assuming she has not stepped down by then.

Carrie Lam

Carrie Lam. Photo: HKFP.

Only in this way, with elections and street protest together, can real pressure be brought to bear on the pro-establishment forces that dominate Hong Kong’s government. He was thus writing in the hope that democrats would remember the Project Storm plan he had introduced two years ago – to encourage pro-democracy candidates, and voters, to begin by doing what they all typically have never done and take seriously the election for Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils.

Specifically, he warned that of the 452 elected District Council seats, only about 300 have pro-democracy candidates waiting in the wings, preparing to contest. Yet the election is now only a few months away.

Consequently, he was appealing for more candidates to step forward – a plea he had actually been making for over a year while he kept urging prospective Project Storm candidates to come out early and build a track record of neighbourhood work well in advance. Candidacies would go nowhere for people who parachuted into a neighbourhood unknown to voters and innocent of local concerns.

Hence his warning: there are still not enough pro-democracy candidates who have been doing the necessary preparatory work in the individual election districts.

He did not add that the unlimited resources and social service skills of the pro-Beijing Federation of Trade Unions, plus some skilful gerrymandering of districts in working-class neighbourhoods, have created the overwhelming headwinds that prospective pro-democracy candidates now face at the lowest level of Hong Kong’s electoral politics. New vetting procedures and candidate disqualifications on political grounds have only added to the obstacles for democrats.

vote voting election

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

The rebuttal was swift and sharp. Pro-Beijing commentator Guo Zhongxing naturally had some unkind things to say about Hong Kong’s new “urban guerrilla warriors” who are demonstrating against Carrie Lam’s extradition bill in neighbourhoods all over town. But his attention focused especially on Benny Tai’s June 27 Apple Daily prison post with its message about using the current protest momentum to impact elections and penetrate the political system.

Guo mocked the suggestion that today’s street fighters – with all their new notions about localism and independence – could suddenly shift gears and become sedate orderly politicians in the name of Benny Tai’s Project Storm. Alas, poor Benny Tai. Yesterday’s man dreaming big dreams in his prison cell. Today’s rabble-rousing street protesters won’t buy into his ideas and have no political platforms of their own.

As Guo sees it, more conventional politicians like young Joshua Wong, the Democratic Party’s Lam Cheuk-ting, and the Civic Party’s Kwok Ka-ki are just opportunists looking to make political capital from the mass marchers’ chaos. Benny Tai is no different. But in his case, it’s just the mutterings of an old fool.

Guo’s rebuttal was maybe a little too swift. Hong Kong’s latest voter registration statistics were announced a month later. Of the record 386,000 newly registered voters this year, the biggest increase was among 18-35-year-olds, the age group currently spearheading the anti-extradition bill protests.

polling station

Polling station. File photo: Catherine Lai/HKFP.

Guo failed to consider Hong Kong’s recent electoral history and the “better-than-expected” performance of the younger candidates in 2015 and 2016. That was when Benny Tai’s unsuccessful Occupy Central campaign for electoral reform succeeding in mobilising a whole new generation of “post-Occupy” activists whose successors are moving into the lead today.

The revolution of our times: Edward Leung

Of that post-Occupy generation, the man of the current moment is Edward Leung, also in Shek Pik Prison. He is currently serving a six-year prison sentence for his leading role in the Mong Kok street confrontations with police during the Lunar New Year holiday in early 2016. His comrade-in-arms then was Ray Wong Toi-yeung, who has been granted asylum in Germany on grounds he might not receive fair treatment should he follow in Edward Leung’s footsteps and return home.

The German authorities were right. From a liberal Western perspective, what has happened to Edward Leung was not “fair.” So determined were the prosecutors in Carrie Lam’s Justice Department to remove him from the political scene that when a jury found him guilty last year – except on one count – they insisted on trying him a second time.

The trials were marathon 70-day affairs. But in March this year, the second jury also found him not guilty on that one count. At least the prosecutors have decided not to try a third time. Nevertheless, he must still serve out the original stiff six-year sentence imposed in June 2018.

Leung’s route to prison did not begin immediately, however. The wheels of justice turn slowly here. Between Mong Kok and prison, he carried on normally, was allowed to travel abroad, contested a by-election – also in early 2016 – and was among the post-Occupy candidates who did in his case “much” better than expected.

Edward Leung

Edward Leung. File photo: Stand News.

His budding political career then came to an end when he was barred from contesting the September 2016 Legislative Council election on political grounds. Political vetting was introduced ahead of that election and Leung was judged not sufficiently committed to Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing under its post-colonial “one country, two systems” governing formula.

It was then, during 2016, while the young post-Occupy candidates were preparing to contest the September Legislative Council election that their ideas developed more fully. Those ideas were about the nature of autonomy and self-determination and independence.

They were also about defending Hong Kong’s separate culture and language and identity against the growing influx of mainlanders and all Beijing’s other cross-border integrating strategies over which Hongkongers have no say. The new ideas also explored the role of violence or “valiant” struggle in defending Hong Kong’s aims.

These are all the ideas that Carrie Lam thought she had succeeded in snuffing out with her two-year-long pacification campaign of political disqualifications and prison sentences. In fact, she has only succeeded in reigniting them.

The new ideas have now reemerged into the sudden explosion of energy and anger that is fuelling the anti-extradition protests. And hovering over all is the spirit of Edward Leung. The slogan from his 2016 by-election campaign has become a protest rallying cry: Take Back Hong Kong, the Revolution of Our Times.”

But herein lurks danger and the essence of the conflict with Beijing – reflected in the ambiguity of the first two characters: kwong fook or guangfu (光復) A dictionary definition says they mean simply to recover or reclaim, take back or restore as with lost territory. In the Hong Kong context that might mean to restore the meaning of the original promises made by Beijing about Hong Kong’s post-1997 political future with all rights and freedoms remaining intact and more besides. The promises also included universal suffrage elections for the Chief Executive and all Legislative Councillors.

august 4 china extradition protest causeway bay

Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

Additionally, however, the term has old historical associations, used with reference to the 1911 revolution that overthrew China’s last imperial dynasty.

The Civil Human Rights Front, Hong Kong’s chief political events organiser, is skirting the present-day limits of political propriety with its translation. The design advertising the city-wide anti-extradition bill strike on Monday, August 5, featured Leung’s original election slogan in Chinese, with a “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now” English translation.

Beijing, of course, is calling out its most sinister implications. Hong Kong’s first post-1997 Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, remains as reliable a source of official Beijing thinking as he was during his days in office. Tung gave a speech on July 31, in which he used Beijing’s official storyline that blames the United States and Taiwan for orchestrating the anti-extradition protests here.

Then he went on to target Leung’s slogan by translating it as “liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times.” Tung said there was absolutely no way to compromise with those who so blatantly challenge the central government’s authority.

“Liberation” is the English translation of the term Beijing uses for the victory of its own revolution that brought the Chinese Communist Party to power in 1949. In Beijing’s eyes, a call for liberation thus signifies a revolution against the Communist Party’s own revolution – “counter-revolutionary” in the most serious use of that old term, signifying the most treasonous of all political evils.

National People's Congress npc beijing great hall

File photo: Lukas Messmer/HKFP.

Except that the Chinese term used for “liberation” in the context of the Communist Party’s victory is a different phrase entirely. Tung Chee-hwa must know this very well, although Carrie Lam probably does not. She has also now begun denouncing the protesters’ demands for “liberation,” which she did during her August 5 press conference.

Perhaps the dangerous implications are what prompted Leung to issue a prison letter of his own. He, too, chose his words carefully. Dated July 26, the message appeared on his Facebook page a few days later – in effect calling on young activists to cool it. He urged them to take care in word and deed and not be motivated by anger and hatred, so that the broader society would be able to understand. The goal, he advised, is not just to rally your supporters but to convince your opponents to do the same, by recognising and accepting your aims.

Never say die: Raphael Wong

As vice-chair of the League of Social Democrats, Raphael Wong is an “old-style” – non-violent – radical. Best-known member of the League is “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung who still exhorts the crowds of Hong Kong Island marchers on demo days from his platform perch just beyond the Canal Street flyover. But with his disqualification as a Legislative Councillor in the oath-taking saga, and with appeals now exhausted, the greying Long Hair’s days as a professional politician seem to be drawing to a close.

Waiting in the wings was Raphael Wong. But as one of the guilty Occupy Nine defendants, he was sentenced on April 24, along with Benny Tai and the others. Wong is currently serving an eight-month sentence in Stanley Prison on Hong Kong Island.

Raphael Wong Land Justice League

Raphael Wong. Photo: inmediahk.net

Following the “never surrender” principle they all live by, he has just applied for a judicial review. He is challenging the Hong Kong election ordinances that stipulate a five-year hiatus for anyone sentenced to more than three months’ jail time.

His legal team will argue, if granted permission to proceed, that those provisions in the ordinances are “unconstitutional” because they directly violate Hong Kong’s post-1997 Basic Law constitution. Article 26 grants all permanent residents the right to stand for elections. The ordinances govern Legislative Council, District Councils, and rural representative elections. As it now stands, Raphael Wong, aged 30, will not be eligible to contest any of the elections until 2024.

Views from behind bars: can Hong Kong's imprisoned activists make their voices heard?