Explained: Hong Kong's Trial of 47 and the national security law
The trial of 47 Hong Kong opposition figures began on Monday after a majority of them were imprisoned nearly two years ago. They have been charged with subversion under the national security law
Vaguely worded and broad in scope, the law was crafted and enacted from Beijing. It quickly transformed life in Hong Kong.
Boisterous demonstrations all but disappeared. Newsrooms were raided and shuttered. Labour unions, pro-democracy coalitions and other civil society groups disbanded, one after another.
Chinese officials have used the national security law, as it is called, to crack down on dissent in Hong Kong, essentially discarding the “one country, two systems” pledge that guaranteed the city a high degree of autonomy after Britain gave it back to China.
In the past two years, more than 200 people have been arrested under the law, and more than 3,000 have been prosecuted on other charges over their roles in anti-government protests.
Virtually all of Hong Kong’s opposition figures, longtime advocates for democracy, were detained on a single day in 2021. Forty-seven of them were charged with subversion under the new law, accused of conspiring in a plot to disrupt the local Beijing-backed government.
Now, with most of the defendants having spent nearly two years behind bars, their trial began Monday, a stark reminder of how dangerous any kind of organised dissent has become.
Here’s what to know about the law and the Hong Kong 47, as the defendants are often called.
The law was drafted in secret
Free speech and judicial independence have long been cherished in Hong Kong and are protected under the Basic Law, as the city’s mini-constitution is known. But the Chinese government, which administers Hong Kong as a semi-autonomous territory, sees those principles as secondary to its control.
In 2003, not long after Hong Kong was returned to China, local pro-Beijing officials tried to pass security legislation. But a draft of the bill raised fears that civil liberties and human rights would be diminished. The legislation was shelved after a mass demonstration.
Chinese authorities took a different approach in 2020. A year earlier, a bill in Hong Kong that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China had set off months of protests. To preempt another wave of dissent, Beijing drafted the security law in secret, bypassing Hong Kong’s legislature.
Its provisions were revealed a day before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. The law took effect immediately, a warning to the many residents who often marked the anniversary with pro-democracy protests.
The 47 democrats were charged over an election
The main defendant in the case is Benny Tai, a law professor and leader of the Occupy Central movement in 2014, which demanded freer elections.
Since 2019, Tai had argued that the pro-democracy camp should hold an unofficial primary election, to find out who its most electable candidates were. Under his strategy, if the democrats could gain a majority in the legislature, they could block the government’s budget, which by law would have forced an ouster of Carrie Lam, then the city’s deeply unpopular leader.
The primary was held in July 2020, and turnout was high, despite authorities’ declaration that it could violate the new security law. The charges against the Hong Kong 47 centre on the primary and Tai’s broader plan, which is being called a subversive plot to paralyse the government.
The case has ensnared longtime opponents of the Chinese government like Joshua Wong, who became world-famous as a teenage student leader during the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” protests for freer elections of the city’s leader.
Several other defendants, like Claudia Mo, Eddie Chu and Lam Cheuk-ting, were veteran lawmakers who had been at the forefront of Hong Kong’s democracy movement for years. Others, like Gwyneth Ho, Owen Chow and Winnie Yu, represented a newer generation of activists and unionists, politicised in the wake of the 2019 protests.
The trial is meant to send a message
Analysts said the case demonstrated the wide reach of the national security law, which authorities initially said would only affect a small minority of the city.
“It’s hard to overestimate the enormity of this case, because it’s basically meant to be a knockout blow to Hong Kong’s peaceful political mainstream Opposition,” said Thomas Kellogg, the executive director of the Centre for Asian Law.
“This is a real choice by the Hong Kong government and Beijing,” he continued. “They could have focused on people who were talking about independence, for example, or people who had been more harshly critical of Hong Kong government policy and Beijing’s policy toward Hong Kong. Instead, they have gone after every sector of civic life.”
The mass arrests of the democrats, in January 2021, were followed by an overhaul of the city’s elections, with new laws to root out candidates who could be deemed disloyal to Beijing. The city ran a “patriots-only” election that December, and in 2022 a legislature was installed whose members were all pro-Beijing, except one.
“It really tells the world that as long as you are in alignment with the pro-democracy movement, you will be considered a criminal,” said Eric Lai, an expert in Hong Kong law.
Many of the 47 defendants have indicated they will plead guilty.
Eva Pils, a law professor at King’s College London, said guilty pleas would allow China to argue that the “wrongdoers” had seen the error of their ways. “Part of the purpose of that messaging operation is to normalise the criminalisation of political dissent in Hong Kong,” she said.
Many protest tactics are banned under the security law
Many of the offences listed under the national security law are tactics that Hong Kong protesters used in 2019, such as disrupting public transport and vandalising government property.
While adding a vast security apparatus to the city, the law also introduced socialist legal concepts to Hong Kong’s common law system, targeting four types of crime. They are:
Secession: speech or actions advocating Hong Kong’s independence from China.
Subversion: undermining the authority of the Chinese central government, including disrupting its activities and vandalising its offices.
Terrorist activities: violence and disruptions to public services for political purposes.
Collusion with a foreign country or with “external elements”: receiving help from countries, institutions and individuals in imposing sanctions against China, rigging local elections or inciting hatred toward the government.
Prison sentences under the law can be harsh. Defendants convicted as “principal offenders” can be imprisoned for life, “active” participants face up to 10 years and minor players can be put away for up to three years.
Hong Kong’s judicial system has changed dramatically
The security law has allowed Beijing to exert unprecedented control over Hong Kong.
With its implementation in 2020 came a web of new national security divisions within the city’s police force and prosecutor’s office. Chinese security forces were allowed to operate openly in Hong Kong for the first time, from a newly created base. This apparatus is led by a national security panel committee that includes Hong Kong’s chief executive, as well as Beijing’s top representative in the city.
The language of the law also gives Beijing the final say on how it should be interpreted, in effect circumventing decisions made in Hong Kong courts. The chief executive, the city’s Beijing-appointed leader, selects the judges who are allowed to hear national security cases. The law also takes precedence should it come into conflict with other laws.
The vast majority of the people charged under the law have been accused of speech crimes, like calling for Hong Kong’s independence or for sanctions against China. Most have been denied bail, which is difficult to obtain under the law.
This year will also see the trial of perhaps Beijing’s highest-profile target in Hong Kong: media mogul Jimmy Lai, a strident critic of China’s government. Critics say that his case demonstrates the erosion of free speech, journalism and judicial independence in Hong Kong in one fell swoop. His trial is scheduled for September.
Tiffany May, c.2023 The New York Times Company
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