In the old Hong Kong, peaceful protesters charged with illegal assembly would at least be released on bail awaiting trial. In the new Hong Kong – the Hong Kong that is now under direct Chinese Communist Party rule, albeit with the pretense of proxies, with “one country, two systems” ripped up – the accused are remanded in custody.
The images of Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam taken into custody after their pre-trial hearing at the start of this week were heartbreaking. The news that Joshua is held in solitary confinement, confined to his cell and denied outside exercise, because a “strange object” was found in his stomach during an X-ray, is outrageous. And reports that he is having to use surgical masks intended to protect against COVID-19 as blindfolds in order to sleep because bright lights are kept on all night in his cell is tantamount to sleep deprivation and a health hazard that could be defined as ill-treatment. To have to choose between sleep and protection against a virus is intolerable.
Of course, Joshua is no stranger to prison – it is his fourth time behind bars. Indeed, it was in part his first imprisonment three years ago that inspired me to found Hong Kong Watch, and for that reason I feel a special bond.
I had met Joshua several times during his visits to London and helped arrange meetings for him with senior British Parliamentarians, so in August 2017 I was watching his first trial with particular concern. A few days before he was sentenced, along with Nathan Law and Alex Chow, I was in a traffic jam in Surabaya, Indonesia – and I always say, if you know Indonesian traffic jams, you know they give you a lot of thinking time. I spent a lot of time thinking about Joshua, Nathan and Alex, and about Hong Kong, and I realized it was no longer enough for me as an individual to be trying to advocate in my spare time for the city’s freedoms. We needed an organisation – and in that moment the idea for Hong Kong Watch was conceived.
A few days later, I was on a short holiday in Bali, when the verdict and sentence in that trial came. As soon as I heard it, a thought went through my head: “Someone should do something, somebody should organize an international statement of concern, somebody should mobilize the world to speak out.” It didn’t take more than a few moments to realize that perhaps that somebody was me, and within 24 hours of their sentence, a statement signed by 25 international figures was released, warning that the imprisonment of these brave, peaceful, dignified young activists was a ‘death knell’ for human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong.
However bad it seemed then, I never imagined how far and how fast Hong Kong would deteriorate over the ensuing three years. This week, juxtaposed with the haunting images of Joshua, Agnes and Ivan being led away, was the grim specter of Chief Executive Carrie Lam delivering her Policy Address to a sham, rubber-stamp, puppet show Legislative Council(LegCo). A LegCo devoid of debate, dissent or even free thought. A LegCo of pro-Beijing zombies, either nodding their assent robotically or nodding away in sleep.
And in that Policy Address, what did the Chief Executive have to say?
She praised her “highly trusted” police who have spent the past 18 months pulverizing and terrorizing into submission anyone who expresses any view that Beijing dislikes – even cordoning off a young student on an MTR platform reading Apple Daily. A police force that stands accused by United Nations experts of harassing, arresting and abusing doctors, nurses and first-aiders, patrolling hospitals “in full riot gear, bearing shields, batons and fire-arms loaded with beanbag rounds and rubber bullets,” and using teargas, pepper spray and other chemicals in densely populated areas, near schools and kindergartens, “indiscriminately, unnecessarily and disproportionately, in violation of international and Hong Kong principles on the use of force”. That’s a police force she’s proud of?
She promised to restore Hong Kong’s constitutional order and political system “from chaos”, when in reality she has destroyed Hong Kong’s constitutional order and political system by tearing up the Basic Law, shredding the Sino-British Joint Declaration and trampling on whatever remained of the city’s democracy and freedoms. A good legislature, she says, is one that listens to her and her masters in Beijing, shuts up and approves the laws they propose, rather than one that does what a real legislature should do – debate, scrutinize, question, hold the executive to account and pass better legislation as a result.
And she offered a dystopian vision of Hong Kong as a Chinese city, no longer the open, free, world city that it has been. The future, as she sees it, is in China, and if that means embracing Xi Jinping Thought and Chinese Communist Party rule in full, so be it, in her mindset. The competent civil servant that was Carrie Lam has long ago vanished. This week we saw Carrie Lam the Communist Party commissar, the ventriloquist’s dummy, reading her lines from Beijing. She says Beijing did not write her speech, she did. Technically, that may be true. But no one can be in doubt that Beijing dictated it.
Yet in this dark week – as in every dark moment – there is a small glimmer of light. For just as Hong Kong’s remaining legislators sleepwalk into disaster, and the Chinese Communist Party regime puts the finishing touches to its total annexation of the city, somewhere else in the world an important international figure who for too long has stayed silent may be stirring.
We learned this week that in a forthcoming book to be published next month, Pope Francis has expressed his concern about the “persecution” of the Uyghurs. That word may be an understatement – for increasingly many regard it as a genocide – and it may be long overdue, but it is at long last at least something from a pontiff who has until now shamefully said nothing.
And Beijing’s reaction was swift, furious and revealing. They just renewed a deal with the Vatican about the appointment of Catholic bishops in mainland China – they could have chosen to be magnanimous and ignore his very modest and much delayed comment on one of the greatest atrocities of our time. Instead their anger revealed their insecurity – and should serve as a wake-up call to the naïve clerics in Rome that the thugs in Beijing simply cannot be trusted, let alone befriended: they can only be confronted.
To those who have put Joshua in solitary confinement, I simply say this: the “strange object” you found in his stomach is something called “guts”, “courage”, “conviction” and “compassion”. Carrie Lam and the Chinese Communist Party don’t know what it is because they don’t have it. But Hongkongers have it in abundance, and I know they will draw on it more deeply than ever as they face ever more challenging times.
So as Joshua, Agnes and Ivan lie awake in prison, and as many Hongkongers lie awake at night agonizing over their future, and as Carrie Lam and her puppet masters in Beijing pull this beautiful city ever further into the darkness, know that always, somewhere, however small, there is light, there is hope, and our task must be to search for it, to find it and to fan it into flames. As I have said in almost every article I’ve written for this great newspaper, I say again: I know it’s my responsibility, and that of my friends living in freedom, to use our freedoms to speak out for those who can’t. It’s up to the free world to take up this fight, on behalf of our friends who inspired us and are now jailed. Be assured we will do our utmost.
(Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, Senior Analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organisation CSW, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission and a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC).)
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