Hong Kong Rally For Rule of Law Comes Amid Divisions in Democracy Movement

Activists say factional sniping within the movement will prevent unity in the campaign for the city's promised freedoms.

Hong Kong protesters call for an end to 'authoritarian rule' in the city, Oct. 1, 2017.

Pro-democracy activists have staged mass rallies and demonstrations in Hong Kong over a national holiday marking China's National Day, calling for an end to "authoritarian" rule in the city.

Tens of thousands marched through the downtown area on Sunday in a protest against the jailing of democracy and land rights activists following a string of controversial sentencing reviews by the city's courts.

Two years after thousands of protesters blocked major highways during the 79-day Occupy Central democracy campaign, groups once more convened for a "rally against authoritarian rule" following a series of high-profile interventions by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in the political and judicial affairs of the city.

Dressed in black, protesters called for the resignation of justice secretary Rimsky Yuen, who ordered courts to review sentences handed down to 16 activists including Occupy leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow, all of whom are now in jail.

"Authoritarian rule has already become Hong Kong's reality," law professor Benny Tai, one of the founders of the Occupy movement for fully democratic elections, told the rally.

"We are having today's rally ... because we hope more Hong Kong people will see the true nature of the government," he said.

The protesters said Yuen had damaged human rights and judicial independence in Hong Kong, which was promised the continuation of its traditional freedoms under the 1997 handover agreement, by ordering the review of noncustodial sentences for the 16 activists.

Breach of the Basic Law

A protester surnamed Wong said Yuen is intent on wiping out any opposition voices in Hong Kong, and that his department is in breach of the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

"I agree [with demands for his resignation] because he is destroying the rule of law," Wong said. "The government has done a lot of things that are unconstitutional. This is authoritarian rule, and I support our prisoners of conscience."

A resident surnamed Tse said he had turned out in protest on China's National Day because the festival is used by the ruling Chinese Communist Party for self-glorification.

"I think that this celebration is entirely orchestrated by the Communist Party: it's more of a Party Day than a National Day celebration," he said.

The government-requested review into the sentencing of Wong, Chow, and Law has also been criticized as part of a politically motivated retaliation instigated by Beijing.

Hong Kong courts also recently stripped six directly elected pan-democratic legislators of their seats following an intervention by the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, invalidating their oaths of allegiance to China.

'Authoritarian era'

Avery Ng of march co-organisers the League of Social Democrats said Hong Kong has now entered "an authoritarian era."

"The law has used against people that hold a different view against the government," he told journalists, calling on Yuen to resign.

"For those in support of the government's views, no matter what crimes they commit, they will go unpunished."

The government warned in a statement on Sunday that Hong Kong's freedoms of speech and demonstration "are not absolute."

But it denied that judicial independence had been subject to political interference.

"Judicial decisions are made independently after fair and open hearings on the basis of the evidence adduced in court and the applicable law," the statement said. "Political consideration does not come into play at all."

"The allegations of political prosecution or persecution [by the Justice Department] are entirely unfounded," it said.

Broken promises

Hong Kong was promised a “high degree of autonomy” under the terms of its 1997 handover from Britain to China, but many say the city’s traditional freedoms are now a thing of the past, as Beijing seeks to wield ever greater influence over the city’s media, publishing, and political scene.

Leaders of the 79-day civil disobedience movement rejected a Aug. 31, 2014 NPC decree which required the vetting of candidates for the city's top job by a pro-Beijing committee, as "fake universal suffrage."

Earlier this year Hong Kong courts stripped six directly elected pan-democratic legislators of their seats following an NPC interpretation invalidating their oaths of allegiance to China.

Pan-democratic lawmaker Charles Mok said the jailing of democracy activists and the stripping of seats from elected lawmakers following an intervention by the NPC on the validity of their oaths last November showed that the authorities are stepping up the pressure on Hong Kong's political opposition.

But he said recent divisions within the movement must be healed as soon as possible.

"There is no room for us to be divided or disunited," Mok said. "We must show mutual tolerance, because this is the biggest hope we have for our collective struggle for democracy and the reliable and equitable rule of law in Hong Kong."

Internal disputes


The pro-democracy movement has been riven by disagreements over the aim of protests and the methods used to get its message across since the Umbrella Movement in 2014, according to democracy campaigner Joseph Cheng, a former political science professor at City University.

Student unions were notably absent from Sunday's rally, which police estimated at a much lower level of turnout than the levels estimated by organizers.

"It's very difficult when you have political views that are hard to reconcile, especially when this degenerates into online flame wars," Cheng said. "This can be very harmful, and I think the first step is to lay off attacking each other."

"We should be doing everything we can to work together, to gradually build mutual trust. But this is a process that will take time."

Reported by Tam Lee for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Chen Pan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.