This week began with the return to Hong Kong of eight of the twelve Hong Kongers who had been detained in Shenzhen since their ill-fated attempt to escape to Taiwan by boat in August last year. Their release from a Chinese jail should be something we could celebrate – after seven months of detention, they are back in Hong Kong. Many of us campaigned, protested and prayed for them released and returning home.
Last October politicians, artists, celebrities and activists from across the world, from climate change campaigner Greta Thurnberg to US Senator Mitt Romney, from former UK Conservative Party leader Sir Iain Duncan Smith MP to Chinese dissident artist Badiucao, from politicians from all parties in North America, Australia and across Europe to Hong Kong’s Grandma Wong and Nathan Law and Uyghurs and Tibetans joined a social media campaign which Joey Siu and I had the privilege of initiating, to #save12hkyouths. My friend and colleague Luke de Pulford – who has done so much to campaign for Andy Li in particular – made a powerful campaign film, and he and I spoke alongside Nathan at a rally in front of Tower Bridge in London. And now, finally, Andy and some of his friends are home.
Yet the moment of relief seeing them leave their Shenzhen prison cells was fleeting. For they are not free, and we have not “saved” the 12. Two – Quinn Moon and Tang Kai-yin – remain in jail in Guangdong Province, China, serving sentences of two and three years respectively. Two others – both minors – had been sent back to Hong Kong in December. And just two days after his return to Hong Kong, Andy Li was charged under the draconian National Security Law with collusion with foreign powers and conspiracy to assist an offender. He may be back in his home town, where prison conditions are somewhat better than in the mainland and where he may receive some due process and legal representation, but that he faces a further time behind bars is hardly in doubt.
The charges levelled against him are ludicrous. What did Andy do that was considered to be “collusion with foreign powers?” Speak to foreign journalists? Speak to people abroad about his political views? And how exactly did Andy “collude with foreign powers” whilst in a Chinese jail? Just how was he able to “collude” with anyone from his prison cell for much of that time? Or are the charges retrospective? And as for his “conspiracy to assist an offender”, that relates to his own attempted escape – so he conspired with himself?
Andy Li is a courageous, selfless young man whose only “crime” is to not only desire, but work for, the freedoms which Hong Kong was promised, deserves and has now been denied. He deserves a hero’s welcome upon return to his home city, not another prosecution and potential lengthy jail term. The campaign to #save12hkyouths, therefore, is far from over: Andy and the other seven released this week must know that we will continue to stand with them until they, their two friends still in jail in Shenzhen, all other political prisoners and Hong Kong itself are free.
The charges against Andy are, as already mentioned, absurd. But that is the nature of dictatorships: they are brutal, cruel and inhumane but also ridiculous. There are times to cry, times to shout, times to mobilize the world in action, but also times to laugh. And sometimes laughter in response to a dictatorship can be a powerful – or at least cathartic – weapon.
What police force in its right mind feels threatened by a loudspeaker? Yet this week pro-democracy activist and former legislator Au Nok-hin was jailed for nine weeks for “assaulting two police officers with a loudspeaker”. He had already been convicted of this “crime” and ordered by a court to serve 140 hours of community service, but now the Court of Appeal has concluded that this was too lenient and a custodial sentence is justified. He didn’t physically hit anyone with a loudspeaker – he merely addressed the crowd through it, yet somehow the baton-wielding, teargas-firing, pepper-spraying, beanbag-firing, protester-beating Hong Kong Police Force got a bit scared by noise levels. Poor things. A Police Force of Pansies as well as thugs. Not a single police officer in Hong Kong has been brought to justice – or even investigated – for their brutality in 2019, yet a moderate, peaceful legislator is jailed because two cops’ ears couldn’t take his loudspeaker message? Yet another case in a long list of ludicrous prosecutions by Hong Kong’s Department of Injustice.
Such lunacy, though, is a hallmark of tyranny. Charging Andy Li with collusion with foreign powers from his Shenzhen jail cell is as ridiculous as charging my Myanmar friend Dr Sasa, whom I wrote about last week, with “high treason”. Dr Sasa, now the exiled voice of the elected representatives of the people of Myanmar is, like Andy, merely appealing to the world to help honor promises made and secure the freedom and democracy his people deserve.
It is Carrie Lam and her stooges who should be jailed for “collusion” with a criminal state that has torn up an international treaty and stands accused of genocide, not Andy. And it is General Min Aung Hlaing who has torn up the ballot papers, overturned the will of the people and illegally seized power in Myanmar who should be jailed for treason, not Sasa.
In this topsy-turvy world of tyranny, elected leaders are charged with ludicrous offences like illegal possession of walkie-talkies, in the case of Myanmar’s legitimate leader Aung San Suu Kyi, or “assault by loudspeaker” in the case of Au Nok-hin.
In the midst of such madness, and in addition to restless, tireless, persistent advocacy for Hong Kong and Myanmar, prayer is so important.
Hong Kong was once literally my home, while Myanmar is my spiritual home. Eight years ago this coming Sunday, Palm Sunday, I was received into the Catholic Church by Myanmar’s courageous Cardinal Charles Bo, in St Mary’s Cathedral, Yangon, with my friend and mentor Lord Alton of Liverpool beside me. As I approach this anniversary which is of such personal significance to me, I conclude by reflecting on what it symbolizes for these two lands I care more about than any other besides my own.
Both men – Cardinal Bo and Lord Alton – who accompanied me in my spiritual journey serve as a constant source of inspiration, encouragement and strength to me and to so many in the struggle for freedom for both Hong Kong and Myanmar. Lord Alton speaks out every week for both places, publicly and privately, defending people like Andy and Sasa. And so does Cardinal Bo, whose prophetic voice is a bright light in a land that has been plunged into darkness.
In a recent message for the Global Day of Prayer for Myanmar, Cardinal Bo said this: “We will pray and work for a new Myanmar to be born out of this current tragedy, a Myanmar where truly every human being has an equal stake in the country and equal rights to basic freedoms, a Myanmar where ethnic and religious diversity is celebrated and where we enjoy real peace, a Myanmar where the soldiers put down their guns, step back from power and do what an army is meant to do: defend rather than attack the people. … A Myanmar that rises again from the ashes.”
The previous day, he issued a statement calling for a week of prayer for China in May, poignantly observing that: “Many parts of the world are currently challenged, including my own country of Myanmar at this time, but in a spirit of solidarity it is right to focus not only on our own challenges but to pray also for others, in the clear knowledge that their well-being is closely linked to ours.”
In a similar vein, Hong Kong’s Pastor Ray Chan of the Good Neighbour North District Church called for a week of prayer and fasting for Myanmar and Hong Kong.
Prayer stills the heart, calms the soul and strengthens the spirit. As another of my heroes, former Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, puts it: “Prayer is like a Bluetooth connection and while it lasts we become a channel through which flows the energy of the universe ... the force of creation and the drive towards redemption ... Prayer is a ladder stretching from earth to heaven.” After prayer, he adds, we return to our world and our work with “the strength to dream, and the openness to see the transformations that can happen in the difficult spaces in between.”
Carrie Lam, who likes to call herself a Catholic, might try this time. Just over a year ago I sent her a book and a letter with my prayers, and she sent it back, effectively telling me she didn’t want my prayers or any spiritual encouragement. She has paid her dues to the Chinese Communist Party, lock, stock and barrel and sold her soul to the devil. Rest in peace, Comrade Carrie.
Every week I pray for my friends in Myanmar. And every Sunday I go to Mass, from London, virtually, in the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Hong Kong, to pray for Hong Kong – and to pray for Andy, and all of Hong Kong’s political prisoners.
Often I light a candle as I do so. As the web of prayers and protest between the two places in my heart connect, the cry for freedom grows louder. And my determination grows stronger. None of us are free until all are free, so we must keep fighting.
As I resolve to redouble my efforts for my friends in Hong Kong and Myanmar I do so with the mottos of the two men who did more than most to signpost my journey. Lord Alton’s, on his coat of arms in the House of Lords, says: “Choose Life”. Cardinal Bo’s episcopal motto is, in Latin, “Omnia possum in eo” – “I can do all things in Him”. With those two inspirations, even if it takes a while, who can go wrong?
(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, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a founding trustee of Hong Kong ARC. He is the author of six books, including three on Myanmar.)
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