Two Hong Kong activists jailed for their role in the 2014 pro-democracy movement were released on bail on Tuesday pending an appeal of their jail terms, as a Chinese official called on the city to resurrect a shelved program of "patriotic education" in schools.
Former Occupy Central protest leader Joshua Wong, now general secretary of the political party Demosisto, was granted bail while serving a six-month jail term, while ousted lawmaker Nathan Law was bailed from his eight-month prison term.
The pair were jailed on Aug. 17 alongside former student leader Alex Chow after the Hong Kong government requested a review of a previous community service sentence they had already served for "illegal assembly."
The charges were linked to the storming of the forecourt of government headquarters at the start of the 79-day civil disobedience campaign for fully democratic elections after the possibility was nixed by China's parliament on Aug. 31, 2014.
Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma approved the bail applications, on payment of HK$50,000 bail and on condition that they surrender their travel documents and report weekly to police.
But Wong said there are no guarantees that the appeal against their jail terms will be successful, and they could soon be back behind bars.
"There is also another case against us running concurrently, the case relating to the clearing of the [last of the] Umbrella Movement in Mong Kok," Wong said. "It is likely that we'll see a sentence in that case next month, or by the end of the year."
"So our bail today only means that we regain our liberty for a brief time," he said. "We could be back in prison again by the end of the year."
On Oct. 13, a district court in Hong Kong found 20 democracy activists, including Joshua Wong, guilty of contempt of court after they ignored a court injunction to leave a protest area during the 2014 Occupy Central, or Umbrella movement, with some expecting to be sent to jail "in the near future."
Wong said it would be business as usual while they were out, however.
"Whatever happens under the oppression of an authoritarian regime, we will take it in our stride," he said. "We will not give in or give up, regardless of the difficulties."
"I don't think that will be our only time in jail, and maybe more young people will go to jail in future," he said. "But we will stick to our principles."
'Mentally prepared' for prison
Law, who was stripped of his seat in Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) following a ruling from China's National People's Congress rendered his oath of allegiance invalid, said he had been mentally prepared for the experience of prison.
"Of course there were times when I couldn't hack it, times when I felt it was awful, but I think a lot of democracy activists are mentally prepared for that," Law said.
"I think the biggest problem we face is that the government is now using the legal system to target protesters," he said. "So I think we need to do more citizenship education about the rule of law."
A recent analysis by Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui of text books, exercise books and other Education Bureau study materials used in Hong Kong's schools found that they are strongly biased against protests and civil disobedience movements.
Hui said on Monday that the materials cite "unreasonable examples," such as public housing tenants not paying rent to protest against rent increases.
China’s education minister on Monday called on the Hong Kong government resurrect a controversial "patriotic education" program in the city's schools after it was shelved in 2012 following mass protests in which Joshua Wong first emerged as a protest leader.
"There is no country and no government in the world that does not implement national education. It is closely related to the public’s self-identity, national viewpoint, and values," Chen Baosheng told government broadcaster RTHK.
He warned that growing debate over independence would harm the city's long-term prosperity and stability
But pan-democratic politicians hit out at Chen's remarks, saying they undermine the city's promised autonomy.
"According to the Basic Law, educational policy comes within the remit of Hong Kong's autonomy, so I can't see why officials in Beijing would want to give us pointers on that," Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan told RFA.
"This patriotic education of course isn't just aimed at the students; it's aimed at the teachers as well," she said. "I don't think we need pointers from them, because people will feel that it is starting to look like total control of an important aspect of life [in Hong Kong]."
"Now, students and teachers alike are going to feel under pressure, but this is also aimed at putting pressure on the Hong Kong government," she said.
Chen overstepped boundary
Lawmaker Ip Kin-yuen, who represents the education sector in LegCo, said Chen's comments went far beyond his remit as an education minister for mainland China.
"It's inappropriate for the education minister to be making public and directive statements about Hong Kong's educational affairs," Ip said.
"The education minister should respect the right of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to govern its own affairs."
A treaty signed in 1984 by then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang set out how Britain would end its century-and-a-half long rule over Hong Kong, and how China would govern the city using the "one country, two systems" principle promising the maintenance of the city's traditional freedoms for at least 50 years.
But a string of legal interpretations by China's parliament of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, as well as cross-border detentions of five Hong Kong booksellers, have left many fearing that the city's traditional freedoms of press and association, and its judicial independence, have been seriously eroded.
Sweden on Tuesday said that one of the booksellers, Gui Minhai, has been released two years after he was detained and taken to mainland China from Thailand.
But Gui's daughter Angela said she has yet to hear from him, despite his allegedly having been released on Oct. 17.
"Even though we have been told by Chinese officials that he has been released, this does not mean that he is free," Angela Gui said.
"Nobody has heard anything from him, I haven't, my family certainly hasn't."
"It's very unclear where he is at the moment and until we know that, and until we know that he is free to travel as these Chinese officials claim, then it is misleading to say that he has been released," she said.
In February 2016, the U.K. accused Beijing of breaching the handover treaty by "involuntarily removing" Gui Minhai's colleague, British national Lee Bo across the internal immigration border to mainland China.
There is no record of Lee leaving Hong Kong, suggesting that he was spirited across the internal immigration border by Chinese police, while Gui, who holds a Swedish passport, was apparently kidnapped while on vacation in Thailand.
Gui's Causeway Bay bookstore colleagues Lui Por, Lam Wing-kei and Cheung Chi-ping were also detained in late 2015 after they crossed the border into China.
Lui, Cheung and Lam were later released after making televised "confessions" with a set of instructions from China's state security police: to reappear in Hong Kong, refute reports of their disappearance, and claim to be voluntarily helping police with their enquiries.
Only Lam refused to to stick to that script, and has since traveled to the democratic island of Taiwan.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.