Group of legislators, activists and community workers are accused of holding unofficial pre-election primaries that authorities say constitutes subversion
By Helen Davidson in Taipei and Verna Yu
February 4, 2023
A protester stands behind a mock jail with photos of the 47 pro-democracy figures in May 2021. There trial is set to begin on Monday. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images
ne of the most significant national security trials in the Chinese government’s crackdown on Hong Kong will begin on Monday, two years after many of the city’s most prominent government critics were first brought into custody.
The case concerns the Hong Kong 47 – a group of pro-democracy legislators, politicians, activists and community workers who have been charged with conspiracy to subvert state power under the national security law.
They are accused of holding unofficial pre-election primaries – a move that the authorities say constitutes subversion. The primaries – which had been a common feature of elections in the past – aimed to select the strongest candidates to run against the pro-Beijing establishment parties.
Their aim was to win a majority of seats in the Legislative Council. But prosecutors have alleged that the primary’s stated plan – to use this majority to block legislation and veto budgetary bills – was a “massive and well-organised scheme” to paralyse the government and topple the city’s Beijing-appointed leader.
“The whole case rests on hypothetical actions that the defendants might make in the future,” says William Nee, a researcher at US-based Chinese Human Rights Defenders. “It is a clear-cut violation of the right to run for public office under international law.”
The prosecution of this group, comprising most of the city’s highest-profile democracy supporters, is the centrepiece of the government’s crackdown on opposition, observers have said.
Prof Chung Kim-wah, a social scientist formerly with the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, says that by elevating the pro-democracy politicians’ supposed crimes to the severity of “conspiracy to subvert state power”, Beijing is sending a message that opposition to the Hong Kong and Chinese governments merits “the harshest punishment”.
“It aims to intimidate the pro-democracy camp so they daren’t stay active as anything they do could constitute serious crime,” he says. “This is how Beijing’s political crackdown is reforming Hong Kong. And they will pull out all the stops to ensure there won’t be any voices of dissent.”
Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, left, and other winners of the unofficial democratic primaries pose in July 2020. Photograph: Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images
Eric Lai, a fellow at the Georgetown university centre for Asian law, says: “This trial is in effect not just for the 47 opposition leaders but also … a trial of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, where the majority of the population has supported their agenda over the last decade.”
At least 31 of those on trial have already pleaded guilty. Sixteen are expected to plead not guilty. Four defendants accused of being “principal offenders” could face life in prison. The court has heard that three people will give evidence as witnesses for the prosecution.
Doubts over due process
The primaries were held in July 2020, just days after the introduction of the national security law. An estimated 600,000 people turned out to vote, in what was seen by some as an act of defianceagainst the government crackdown.
Days later, the Chinese government declared the primaries were illegal. Almost six months later, on the morning of 6 January 2021, police arrested dozens of organisers and participants in a series of dawn raids.
The elections – which the 47 had hoped to win – were postponed, ostensibly because of Covid. They were eventually held after a “patriots only” overhaul of the electoral system which effectively made it impossible for opposition candidates to run and win.
Among those arrested in January were co-organisers of the primary, and well-known activists, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung and Benny Tai, a legal scholar who was also an organiser of the 2014 “umbrella movement”. Claudia Mo, an outspoken pro-democracy legislator and Civic party founder, is also among the group. She resigned from parliament in November 2020, alongside the entire pro-democracy bloc, in protest against the Beijing-ordered disqualification of four colleagues. James To and Lam Cheuk-ting, who also resigned from parliament, were also arrested over the primaries.
Younger defendants include Joshua Wong, an activist who has already served jail time over the 2019 protests, and Gwyneth Ho, a young journalist formerly with Stand News, who was a popular candidate at the primaries.
Most of those arrested – 34 of the 47 – were denied bail and have been in custody for more than two years.
Prosecutors allege that the pro-democracy figures’ were inspired by Tai, who was accused of manipulating the electoral system to undermine the government.
“The endgame … was to bring about an acute crisis in Hong Kong triggering bloody crackdown and ultimately to lobby foreign countries to impose political and economic sanctions on the mainland and the city,” read the prosecutors’ case summary, quoted in the South China Morning Post.
“The impugned objective was a clear attempt to subvert the state power, paralyse the operation of the … government by disrupting the normal and systematic running of Legco and ultimately bringing down the government as a whole.”
In September, an initial group of 29 had sought to be sentenced earlier, arguing that some may have already served the term they would eventually receive as a sentence. But prosecutors told the high court they needed to wait until after the trial so they could see the full scope of the alleged conspiracy and guilt of the defendants, Hong Kong Free Press reported.
Activists and legal scholars have said the national security law has created a parallel justice system, with less oversight and fewer rights and protections for defendants. Cases under the national security law are heard by specific judges handpicked by the chief executive, and can be sent to mainland China for trial if deemed necessary. Through the ongoing prosecution of media mogul and activist Jimmy Lai, the government and courts have ensured foreign lawyers can be banned from representing clients.
The trial of the 47, which has faced significant and repeated delays, will also be judge-only, after Hong Kong’s justice secretary, Paul Lam, declared the “personal safety of jurors” would be at risk, and said there were “foreign elements” involved in the case.
Eric Lai says the executive branch’s involvement in removing the jury from this trial, and the prolonged pre-trial detention of most defendants, are among several aspects of the case that “raised doubts of a fair trial and due process”.