IXinda Is it a threat to a country’s security if opposition politicians try to win at the ballot box? In Hong Kong, it might be considered that way. On 6 February, the trial of 47 activists and former lawmakers began. They are charged with conducting unofficial primary votes ahead of elections scheduled for September 2020. Their goal: to pick a candidate who can win a majority in the legislature despite a system that works against them.
It is the largest trial in Hong Kong involving the draconian national security law, which was imposed by the Beijing government in June 2020 to suppress dissent. The defendant’s plot to win failed. Selected candidates never make it to the official ballot. Instead, primary organizers, including veterans of the Hong Kong protest movement such as Joshua Wong and Yiu-ting Tai, have been arrested under the new legislation on subversion charges.
The prosecution’s case sounds like a description of how opposition politicians might operate anywhere else. The 47 were accused of being “well-organized” and intended to “arm” their expected majority by voting down the government budget and forcing the resignation of Hong Kong’s then chief executive, Carrie Lam. Their actions appeared to be legal under existing laws in the region, but the new legislation took effect days before the primary. For critics of the government, it changed everything.
According to a database maintained by Eric Lai of King’s College London, 227 people have been arrested and 135 charged under security laws, despite initial advice to use caution.Some of the alleged offenses are trivial, like wearing a taboo Ton-shirt.
Perhaps the government’s biggest concern about Plan 47 is that it might succeed. Hong Kong’s voting system is designed to favor supporters of the government. But in 2020, 600,000 Hong Kongers voted despite official warnings that primaries could violate national security laws. That showed strong support for the pro-democracy camp and might even be enough to secure a majority in a full election.
Three weeks later, the government postponed official polls, ostensibly because of covid-19. By the time the rescheduled vote is held in December 2021, the legislature has been further restructured to give greater representation to traditionally pro-government voices, such as the business lobby. A law was also introduced to exclude those who were not judged as “patriots”. Lawmakers must now swear allegiance to the central government.
The national security law does not prohibit jury trials, but allows courts to abandon the tradition. They always do that instead of using a panel of national security judges handpicked by Hong Kong’s chief executive, Kar-chao Lee, to hand down the verdict.
Hong Kong’s judiciary remains “basically” independent: authorities do not directly instruct judges on what sentences to hand, said a barrister involved in the national security trial. He added that they don’t need to do that. Under the new system, the terms of government-appointed national security judges are reviewed annually. Those who show independence seem unlikely to extend their time on the bench. Liberal judges on lower courts are also less likely to be promoted.
The current trial is planned to last 90 days. The defendants face sentences ranging from three years to life in prison. Thirty-one pleaded guilty. Most have spent the past two years in jail awaiting trial. Once it is assumed that defendants are entitled to bail, unless the prosecution can show that their release would pose a danger, the burden of proof is inverted in a national security trial.
Optimists in the pro-democracy camp wonder whether the trial, perhaps including rousing speeches from the dock, will rekindle protest fervor among Hong Kongers. More realistically, some say, it will only exacerbate the chill that has spread across the city since the introduction of the national security law, and the belief that calling for democracy is now reckless. ■
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