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As further proof that the Chinese Communist Party isn’t letting up on infringing on Hong Kong’s autonomy and the freedom of its citizens, police on Monday issued arrest warrants for eight overseas Hong Kong activists for offenses such as foreign collusion and incitement to secession under the national security law. The accused are activists Nathan Law, Anna Kwok, and Finn Lau, former lawmakers Dennis Kwok and Ted Hui; lawyer and legal scholar Kevin Yam; unionist Mung Siu-tat; and online commentator Yuan Gong-yi.

HRF spoke to Sunny Cheung, a 2020 party primary nominee and a member of the Hong Kong 47, to discuss the case and what’s going on in the region.

Q: Can you explain who the Hong Kong 47 are and why they’re on trial?

A: The Hong Kong 47 are a group of pro-democracy politicians, lawyers, scholars, and journalists arrested and put on trial due to their participation in the 2020 pro-democracy camp primaries that 600,000 other citizens joined. The group was arrested in a series of early morning raids on Jan. 6, 2021. The key individuals are legal scholar Benny Tai; seasoned lawmaker Claudia Mo; prominent activists Joshua Wong and Lester Shum; and journalist Gwyneth Ho. They’re all charged with “conspiring to subvert state power” and face up to life imprisonment. The arrests were made under Hong Kong’s controversial national security law (NSL), which was imposed by China in June 2020 and has been widely criticized as a threat to civil liberties and freedom of expression in the city. The trial of the Hong Kong 47 is seen as a further erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and democracy.

Q: What is the significance of this landmark trial against the greater backdrop of Hong Kong’s waning democracy?

A: The trial is a sign of China’s encroaching control over Hong Kong and its attempts to dismantle  Hong Kong’s “rule of law.” Political freedom, political opposition, and any form of contentious politics are no longer allowed in the eyes of Beijing. 

This mass arrest erased the entire political opposition in Hong Kong. The charges of “conspiring to subvert state power” against the pro-democracy figures are vague and far-reaching. Presently,  bail is a rare exception under the NSL. As a result, many of the 47 have been detained for more than two years before even going to trial. 

Even as the trial began, prosecutors often claimed they were still looking for evidence and refused to disclose critical information about the case, leaving defendants in a defense-less shroud of ambiguity. Instead of prosecutors, politically appointed NSL judges tend to interfere by actively questioning defendants and presuming their guilt. This has become the “new normal” in the judicial sphere.

Q: What are the likely outcomes of this trial?

A: It’s challenging to forecast the verdict of the trial of the Hong Kong 47, but there’s little optimism among the public since the charges serve the political interests of the regime. Signs of bias are patent and omnipresent during the trial. 

The application of a “co-conspirator principle” by prosecutors in this trial is particularly concerning because it allows for statements made outside of court by one alleged co-conspirator to another to be admitted into evidence against all defendants. This considerably lowers the threshold for prosecution. This could mean that as long as one accused is found guilty, the remaining defendants could also be convicted as conspirators. Convictions range from three to 10 years of imprisonment for conspiracy to commit subversion and 10 years to life if found guilty of “active participation.” Given the merciless consequences and unfair trial conditions, many defendants have had no choice but to plead guilty to a non-existent crime.

Be that as it may, some defendants, including journalist Gwyneth Ho and activist Owen Chow, have chosen not to plead guilty. They are likely to be the focal point of the trial as they aim to challenge the legitimacy of the prosecution and expose the inconsistencies and injustices of the regime, even though they acknowledge the verdict may already be predetermined. Those who continue to stand up against injustice and fight for their beliefs, even in the face of overwhelming odds, are deserving of our support.

Q: What does this mean for the future of democracy in Hong Kong?

A: The mass arrest of the Hong Kong 47 underscores the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) ambitions to tighten its control over the city. While the regime’s charges against the 47 proclaim they are a threat to national security, it is clear the CCP is using the NSL as an unjustified excuse to stifle opposition voices and attempt to seize de-facto control over Hong Kong from freedom-loving Hong Kongers, despite its promises of the One Country Two Systems framework.

This crackdown has created a climate of fear, curtailing freedom of expression and political participation. The mass arrest, and a subsequent electoral reshuffle imposed by the CCP, have effectively eliminated the pro-democracy camp’s involvement in the legislative branch, given that most of the political leaders have been either detained or are in exile, and their associates will not be allowed to run for the election. Without oversight, the regime will further promulgate policies that serve the interests of the party and infringe on the freedom of individuals and stakeholders in civil society ranging from media, academia, labor unions, and many other groups.  

Despite political institutions blocking the entry and representation of the pro-democracy camp, Hong Kongers remain resolute and actively seek new avenues to sustain their fighting spirit.

Q: In the face of such a political crackdown, what can people do to show support for Hong Kong?

A: Firstly, raising awareness of the situation in Hong Kong and the implications of its decline under the One Country Two Systems framework is crucial. Supporting overseas pro-democracy groups and organizations that advocate for human rights and freedom in Hong Kong is also vital. Secondly, the international community must take a more assertive and collective stance in its dealings with China, given its aggressive expansionist policies. Protecting democracy is vital, and we must not give in to challenges. 

Finally, while the crackdown on pro-democracy voices is a severe blow to Hong Kong, it doesn’t signify the end of the fight for democracy for Hong Kongers. It is essential to pay close attention to the well-being of political prisoners and the ongoing situation in Hong Kong. Showing solidarity with the people of Hong Kong by taking actions such as sanctioning officials who are responsible for the crackdown is essential. Responding is not intimidation, but not speaking is resignation.

The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) remains committed to amplifying the voices and stories of Hong Kongers and their struggle for freedom.

HRF’s CCP Disruption Initiative aims to expose the myriad of ways that the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) rapidly growing influence poses a threat to human rights and freedoms. This program’s areas of focus include the crackdowns on Chinese human rights defenders, the genocide against the Uyghur population, the severe stifling of freedoms in Tibet, and the trampling of freedoms in Hong Kong.