Hong Kong’s Political Prisoners Spend Lunar New Year Behind Bars

A growing number of people are being jailed for expressing their views and criticizing the government peacefully, amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent.

Hong Kong began its traditional Lunar New Year celebrations on Thursday with nearly 200 people in prison for their role in the 2019 protest movement.

Since protests began to escalate in spring 2019 against plans by chief executive Carrie Lam to allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland Chinese courts, later broadening to include demands for fully democratic elections and greater accountability, more than 190 people have been sent to jail, mostly on charges linked to "illegal assembly."

Meanwhile, more than 50 opposition politicians and activists arrested last month in a city-wide crackdown on dissent under a draconian national security law imposed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were required to report to local police stations as part of their bail conditions amid fears they could be rearrested while doing so.

Some said they had eaten an early New Year meal with their families just in case.

"I'm just glad that I get to go back home and eat the New Year meal at home with my family," democracy activist Lester Shum told reporters after reporting to a police station, and remaining out on bail.

Lee Cheuk-yan, who heads the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Democratic Patriotic Movements in China, said he too remains on bail, but is "very upset" that bail was recently denied to pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai and to outspoken radio talk show host Wan Siu-yin, who are both awaiting trial on "national security" charges for comments made online.

"[Those behind bars] can't get together with their families; I feel very sad about that," Lee told RFA. "Naturally, this isn't just in Hong Kong ... there are many stories about our democratic comrades-in-arms in mainland China who are separated from their families."

'A pirated version of the rest of China'

Lee said hopes were now beginning to fade that Hong Kong could influence the rest of China with its former brand of freewheeling economics, partial democracy and rule of law.

"We never thought Hong Kong would itself turn into a pirated version of the rest of China," he said. "The saddest thing is that instead of Hong Kong changing China, the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has turned the full force of its power on us, and is transferring its dictatorship to Hong Kong."

On Jan. 6, around 1,000 national security police officers were dispatched to arrest 53 people who took part in or helped to organize a primary election in July aimed at selecting pro-democracy candidates for Legislative Council (LegCo) elections that were then postponed by the authorities.

Former Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai was among them, but had his bail revoked because he refused to hand over his British National Overseas (BNO) passport to police.

Current party chairman Lo Kin-hei visited Wu in the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre on Thursday, saying that he appeared in fairly high spirits, and that the food there wasn't too bad.

But he said it was hard to have a genuinely festive new year celebration under the current national security crackdown on peaceful dissent and political opposition.

"Things are going to be very difficult for a long time," Lo told RFA. "All we can do now is protect ourselves as much as possible, and prepare, together with the people of Hong Kong, for possibly worse times still to come."

As the city prepares for the Year of the Ox, there are signs that the authorities are planning to legislate to bring the city's legal and political systems more closely into alignment with those in mainland China, which has actively rejected the separation of powers and judicial independence, saying all institutions should obey the CCP.

Coercive legislation

If all of the legislation passes the Legislative Council (LegCo), now devoid of political opposition, China's national flag will soon be flown in Hong Kong's schools and kindergartens, which will be required to hold a flag-raising ceremony once a week.

Comments criticizing visitors from mainland China on social media will be outlawed under amendments to equal opportunities laws.

Chung Kim-wah, deputy head of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI), said such laws will only serve to encourage rebellion in Hong Kong, however.

"The more coercive the legislation, the greater the sense of rebellion in Hong Kong, because that's the kind of place this is," Chung said. "They should first recognize the impact of the regime's behavior."

"This could have the opposite effect to the one that is intended."

Current affairs commentator Johnny Lau said the new measures would impose a "superficial kind of unity" on Hong Kong.

"I think what most people see is Carrie Lam doing various things to try to get re-elected [for a second term as chief executive]," he said, in a reference to a limited vote by a Beijing-controlled Election Committee.

As of December 2020, Hong Kong police had arrested 10,200 people in connection with the 2019 protest movement, of whom 3,450 have been prosecuted.

More than 1,000 cases are still working their way through the judicial system, with more than 190 sentenced and around 100 currently awaiting trial.

Reported by Man Hoi Yan, Lau Siu Fung and Chung Yut Yiu for RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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