China lashes out at criticism of Hong Kong trial of 47 lawmakers and activists

US Senate Committee says “sham trial" illustrates "China’s destruction of the rule of law.”
By Ng Ting Hong and Wu Hoi Man for RFA Cantonese
China lashes out at criticism of Hong Kong trial of 47 lawmakers and activists A supporter is taken away by police outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts building during the hearing of the 47 pro-democracy activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion under the national security law, in Hong Kong, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023.
Credit: Reuters

Hong Kong and Chinese officials have hit out at criticism of the trial of 47 former pro-democracy lawmakers and activists, who could face life imprisonment for taking part in a democratic primary election in 2020 aimed at maximizing the number of opposition seats in the city's legislature.

A foreign ministry spokesperson in Hong Kong said China "expresses strong dissatisfaction and firm opposition" to criticism of Hong Kong's judicial system, which is currently engaged in a trial in front of three government-picked judges with no jury under a draconian national security law imposed by Beijing.

"There is no right or freedom that can break through the red line of national security," the spokesperson said in a statement, calling recent criticisms of the trial a "political performance."

The statement repeated the prosecution claim that the primary election was the work of "anti-China disruptive forces" and aimed to "seize control of the Legislative Council."

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee tweeted on Monday: "Today, #HongKong begins a sham trial against 47 pro-democracy leaders who planned to run for political seats."

"This charade illustrates #China’s destruction of the rule of law and how afraid it is of different opinions. The U.S. will continue to support these freedom fighters," the tweet said.

The Hong Kong government said the case wasn't political, however.

"Cases will never be handled any differently owing to the profession, political beliefs or background of the persons involved," it said in a statement, claiming the courts were "free from any interference."

Part of a ‘purge’

The statements came after the last British colonial governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten of Barnes, said the trial was part of a political "purge" by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

"The Communist Party in Beijing, through its willing collaborators in Hong Kong, continues step-by-step to purge leaders or supporters of democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong," Patten said in a statement.

"I hope the world will continue to watch what is happening and take it to heart when considering how to treat Communist China in the weeks and months ahead."

Lord Patten of Barnes, the last British colonial governor of Hong Kong, called the trial part of a political "purge" by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Credit: AFP file photo

The former pro-democracy lawmaker in exile, Ted Hui, called on more governments to speak out in support of the 47 defendants, 16 of whom have pleaded not guilty and the rest guilty.

"The detained 47 are the most prominent representatives of all Hong Kongers," Hui said. "They are the faces of Hong Kong. I call on leaders from free countries to make the strongest statements ever to support them and call for their release."

Benedict Rogers, who heads the London-based rights group Hong Kong Watch, said the trial had marked Hong Kong's transformation from an open society to a police state.

"[It] is emblematic of the dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms, autonomy, human rights and the rule of law," Rogers said. 

"It is a total travesty of justice that these 47 individuals are even on trial, simply for conducting a process which is normal in any democracy, an open primary to select their candidates," he said in a statement on the group's website.

Focus on Benny Tai

The prosecution on Tuesday concentrated its arguments around former University of Hong Kong law professor and veteran political activist Benny Tai, 57, one of the initiators of the 2014 Occupy Central pro-democracy movement.

Tai's writings and comments in secretly filmed political meetings at the time were evidence that the democratic primary was a "conspiracy to subvert state power," the prosecution argued in a trial that is expected to last 90 days.

The secretly filmed footage played in court suggested that one of the pro-democracy activists present had handed over footage to national security police.

Tai's plan, summarized in his article "10 steps to mutual destruction" printed in the now-shuttered Apple Daily newspaper and posted to Facebook, aimed to gain at least 35 of the 60 seats in the Legislative Council for pro-democracy candidates.

Protesters rally outside a Hong Kong court as the authorities charged 47 pro-democracy activists picked up in mass arrests, March 1, 2021. Credit: RFA

Deputy Director of Public Prosecutions (Special Duties) Anthony Chau argued that democrats had held more than 10 meetings since January 2020 to figure out how to implement the primary, and had agreed to support the five demands of the 2019 protest movement, which included universal suffrage, greater police accountability and an amnesty for all detained protesters.

Tai was handed a 10-month prison term in May 2022 for "illegally" promoting an earlier strategic voting scheme titled "ThunderGo" ahead of the 2016 Legislative Council elections via six paid newspaper ads.

The 47 defendants were arrested en masse in January 2021 by national security police, prompting angry protests, and the majority have been held on remand ever since, with only a handful allowed out on bail.

Soon after the primary, the government postponed the September 2020 elections, citing the COVID-19 pandemic, then rewrote the electoral rulebook to prevent pro-democracy candidates from running.

The subsequent "election" of Chief Executive John Lee in a poll in which he was the only candidate wiped out any distinction between the city and the rest of mainland China, commentators said at the time.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster


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