Conflicts - TensionsFree and Open Indo-Pacific/FOIPNortheast Asia

Hong Kong begins 2024 on anti-democracy drive


When the trial of media mogul Jimmy Lai began December 18, 2023, in Hong Kong, some called it a landmark test of free speech under the former British colony’s draconian national security law.

Others, such as Lai’s son, Sebastien, called it a sham trial.

Jimmy Lai, 76, the pro-democracy publisher of the now-defunct Apple Daily newspaper, is charged with “colluding with foreign forces” and conspiracy to publish seditious material. He faces life in prison.

The long-delayed trial, which is expected to last months, is a prominent example of what observers say is a dismantling of the “one country, two systems” formula that the People’s Republic of China (PRC) agreed to when the United Kingdom handed over Hong Kong in 1997. Under the deal, the global financial hub was promised a high degree of political autonomy for 50 years, including freedoms not offered on mainland China under the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.

But the PRC has been increasingly willing to renege on that pledge — especially in the wake of the 2019 pro-democracy mass movement. The Beijing-imposed security law in 2020 criminalized dissent and government criticism, leading to the arrests of activists, politicians and journalists such as Lai, as well as the rolling back of electoral rights and free speech.

As 2023 waned, examples of what’s been called “Hong Kong’s mainlandization” included:

  • The Hong Kong government added five overseas pro-democracy activists to what United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned as a “bounty list” and offered $128,000 for information on each, The Washington Post newspaper reported in December. Joey Siu, a Washington, D.C., activist and U.S. citizen, said her inclusion shows the “extraterritorial reach of the national security law.”
  • Agnes Chow, another pro-democracy activist who spent about seven months in prison, took to Instagram in early December to describe how she was allowed to leave Hong Kong to study in Canada. Chow, 27, said she was ordered to renounce her past or remain confined to the city. Chow took the deal, which included a police-escorted trip to the mainland where she was forced to show appreciation for the Chinese Communist Party, the Agence France-Presse news agency reported. Chow said she will not return to Hong Kong despite bail requirements that she do so periodically. The city’s chief executive, John Lee, said Chow will be pursued for life unless she surrenders to authorities.
  • Journalism groups raised concerns that Minnie Chan, a reporter for the Hong Kong newspaper South China Morning Post, had been detained after traveling to Beijing for an October security forum. As of late December, Chan’s only apparent contact had been a mid-November Facebook post, and the newspaper said she had taken “personal leave,” according to media reports.
  • Voter turnout in a December “patriots only” district election that excluded democratic opposition hit an all-time low of 27.54%, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.
  • A 26-year-old man wearing a T-shirt with a banned protest slogan was arrested as he boarded a flight, RFA reported November 30.

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