Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam were sentenced to 13.5 months, 10 months, and seven months in prison, respectively. On the same day, a veteran of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, famed businessman Jimmy Lai – already detained by authorities – was denied bail.
The plight of these brave defenders of freedom is yet another nail in the coffin for liberty in Hong Kong.
A new national security law was imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing earlier this year as an attempt by Beijing to respond to widespread protests in Hong Kong during 2019.
The law, among other things, criminalizes so-called foreign collusion, terrorism, separatism, and other political crimes. It sent a chilling message to Hong Kongers that Beijing was no longer sitting on the sidelines but actively interfering in their autonomy.
While Wong, Chow, and Lam have not yet been charged under the new law, some fear that is coming next. They were instead sentenced under the Public Order Ordinance for the role they played in organizing an unauthorized protest outside of Police Headquarters during 2019 demonstrations.
Of the three, Chow has the greatest reason to fear. While she was sentenced to only 10 months this time around, she currently has pending charges under the new national security law for so-called “colluding with foreign forces” – a crime for which she could get a life sentence. This is the first time that she has served prison time.
The three pro-democracy advocates rose to prominence due to their leadership in student protests during the 2014 Umbrella Movement that pressed for full suffrage, or the ability for Hong Kongers to directly elect their Chief Executive. (Under the previous one-country, two-systems arrangement put in place after the British handover in 1994, Hong Kong citizens could vote for Legislative Council members, but the top leader was appointed in concert with Beijing.)
They also opposed efforts by the Hong Kong government to institute a national curriculum, something they feared would erode freedom of thought in education.
Their advocacy started in their teens and led them to eventually play a formidable role as political opposition in Hong Kong. They founded the now-dissolved opposition party, Demosisto, along with other young Hong Kongers.
They have each earned their time in the spotlight, but none have faced the ire of the government quite like Joshua Wong. This will be his fourth prison sentence.
However, this is the first time he was sentenced to time in solitary confinement. He penned a powerful letter during his time in solitary prior to this week’s sentencing noting that “cages cannot lock up souls”.
It is hard to say what lies ahead for Wong, Chow, and Lam, each eager to see freedom fully enjoyed by the people of their city-state. They have only just graduated college. They are still in their 20s.
Some have speculated that these charges are only the beginning of a long, bureaucratic process that will repeatedly land these young people, who are in so many ways the lifeblood of the pro-democracy movement, behind bars.
Jimmy Lai being denied bail is another sign of how steadily civil and political liberties have eroded in Hong Kong. Lai is the founder of media conglomerate, Next Digital, which owns the newspaper, Apple Daily. He currently faces charges of foreign collusion under the national security law and separate charges of fraud.
Lai was most likely denied bail, not due to the fraud charges, but due to the pending charges under the national security law. To put a finer point on it, Beijing fears the pro-democracy message that Lai’s Apple Daily shares with Hong Kong and the rest of the world.
While Hong Kong has faded from US headlines in recent months, the impact of the new national security law is undeniable. The Trump administration should not withhold condemnation for recent egregious charges against pro-democracy figures there and should continue to express support for freedom in Hong Kong.
The next administration will no doubt need to consider the options it has to hold Beijing to account for undermining liberty in the city-state and craft policy to preserve what is left of their freedom.
Nothing is impossible, the word itself says, “I’m possible!