Analysis Politics

Hong Kong's 'Umbrella Movement' leaders on trial

Democracy is stress-tested as Chinese influence in the city grows.

Photo Credit: Pasu Au Yeung

Although the world all but forgot Hong Kong’s protests in 2014, the impact of the pro-democratic campaign is still being felt today through a legal battle between Chinese prosecutors and nine campaigners that started it all. The group includes the leaders of the so-called ‘Umbrella Movement’. Chan Kin-man, Benny Tai, and Chu Yiu-ming have all plead ‘not guilty’ to causing public nuisance and await the result of their trial, predicted at some time in the coming week. This landmark trial, dubbed a ‘politically motivated prosecution’ by Amnesty International, will be an important test of Hong Kong’s judicial independence. It will also help gauge the extent to which China is interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs today.

It is the latest in a series of incidents that have tested the terms of the 1997 agreement negotiated by Margaret Thatcher. The British leader required that certain fundamental freedoms’ remain untouched: ‘freedom of speech, ‘freedom of press,’ and ‘freedom of association’. This deal is set to expire in 2047, where China will once again gain control of the city. It does not, however, appear that Xi Jinping wants to wait that long. Hong Kong’s protest movement coincided with a nation-wide Chinese project designed to quell dissent in key regions, and Hong Kong is part of that project.

Following the 2014 protest, China’s Justice Department instigated a crackdown on public ‘unlawful assembly’ as well as sources of dissent. This involved arrest for many young protesters that were involved in the city’s Umbrella Movement, which got its name from the umbrellas Hong Kongers used to fend off batons and tear gas during conflict with police. The Movement argues that China has constantly overstepped its legal bounds, and point to events like the disappearance of an entire book shop’s staff as a cause for concern. The shop sold texts outlining the corruption scandals and sex lives of China’s elite.

Photo Credit: Citobun

Campaigners also claim that Hong Kong’s government no longer enjoys complete independence. Protests, both peaceful and violent, are frequent in the legislative chamber. Two legislators were arrested this week for their decision to protest during a debate over the controversial ‘joint checkpoint’ law. The law permits Chinese authorities ‘mainland’ jurisdiction over certain areas of the Guangzhou-Shenzhen-Hong Kong rail network. One of the lawmakers noted ‘this is the first time in Hong Kong’s legislative history that lawmakers have been prosecuted for peaceful protest against the president’s unfair judgments’. He went on to say that if he were convicted, the conviction would set a ‘precedent’ that would give lawmakers only two options: ‘staying silent, or voluntarily leave the chamber’.

Despite its myriad of high-profile legal battles, China is keen to emphasize the benefits of a united Hong Kong to the city’s residents. It emphasizes both cultural and practical unity, and has invested many billions of dollars in projects like the Hong Kong-Zhuhai bridge: the longest sea-crossing bridge in the world. The project is designed to physically emphasize Hong Kong’s connection to the mainland. At the same time, educational textbooks issued by China for Hong Kong criticise western democracy and preach solidarity with the city’s Chinese neighbours.

The media is also an important battleground for the Chinese state in Hong Kong. Newspapers controlled by the Chinese government are printed each day in the city, and they emphasize governmental collaboration. A regular section called ‘Honest China’ discusses Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption measures. Hong Kong financiers are concerned about the validity of contracts signed in China and these measures are designed to make Chinese business partners more attractive.

The jury remains out on both legal cases, but China’s previous actions within the city equate to a pattern that stresses increased unity for the superpower and its smaller neighbour. If China’s actions and rhetoric are to be believed, it is unlikely the Thatcherian ‘one country, two systems’ rule will apply to Cantonese politics for much longer.

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