More than 200 academics from universities in Hong Kong and abroad have criticised the police prosecution of students and scholars who played a leading role in the 2014-15 pro-democracy protests that swept the city demanding universal suffrage to elect the semi-autonomous city’s chief executive, as its leader is known.
Nine academics, former student leaders, former and current legislators are facing criminal prosecution, launched a day after Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s new chief executive, was elected on 26 March by a mainly pro-Beijing 1,194-member electoral college.
Lam, who was formally chief secretary for administration, heading the civil service under Hong Kong’s outgoing chief executive Leung Chun-ying, claimed she did not know of the police action, which took many by surprise.
“Prosecution actions are undertaken independently by the Department of Justice under the Basic Law,” Lam said, referring to Hong Kong’s mini-constitution known as the Basic Law.
But academics were outraged at what they see as politically motivated prosecutions, which they saw as being held off until after the election in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region or SAR.
“Using peaceful means of civil disobedience, with participation by more than one million Hong Kong citizens, these activists joined a 79-day occupation movement demanding universal suffrage for the election of the SAR legislature and the chief executive of Hong Kong. Yet, they now face criminal charges of 'conspiracy to commit public nuisance, inciting others to commit public nuisance, and inciting people to incite others to commit public nuisance'," the scholar’s statement issued last Sunday said.
The statement was signed by 100 academics in Hong Kong’s universities and another 90 scholars from overseas institutions, including in the United States, Canada, Japan, Singapore, Spain and Germany.
Each charge carries a maximum penalty of seven years in jail.
“There is widespread concern in Hong Kong that this recent decision [to prosecute] is just the opening salvo of more political persecutions against academics, students and citizens involved in the Umbrella Movement,” said the statement.
The 2014-15 street protests, among the largest seen in Hong Kong and initially known as Occupy Central, were often referred to as the Umbrella Movement after photographs emerged of protesters staving off tear gas using yellow umbrellas.
“These criminal prosecutions against peaceful academics and citizens have immense chilling effects on the international and local academia, students and the youth, in addition to inflicting permanent damage to Hong Kong’s reputation as a free and open society,” the statement added.
“It is our professional and moral responsibilities to defend and sustain an open and democratic society, the pursuit of justice, human rights, freedom of assembly and speech, all of which are fundamental to scholarly research, teaching and exchange.”
Before the 26 March election, Leung had already acted in recent months to remove from office pro-democracy politicians – several of them former student leaders – elected during Hong Kong’s legislative council elections in September 2016. Two were barred from taking their seats last year, and the government has launched legal challenges against four other legislators.
Of the prosecutions announced on 27 March, Amnesty International’s Hong Kong Director, Mabel Au, said the authorities “have had years to consider these cases”.
"The timing of the charges, the day after Lam won the closed race to be the city's new chief executive, raises serious questions on whether political manoeuvrings were a factor in the decision to bring charges now."
University of Hong Kong Law Professor Benny Tai, a founder of the Occupy Central movement and one of the nine being prosecuted, said the timing of the prosecutions, just a day after the leadership election, provided a “reasonable basis for suspecting” that political considerations played a part in the decision.
Tai and two other founders of the Occupy Central movement – Sociology Professor Chan Kin-man and another member of the movement Chu Yiu-ming – face an additional charge of conspiring to create a public nuisance.
Lam, as a government official, attempted to dampen the 2014 protests by purporting to hold a dialogue with the student demonstrators, but only angered the protesters by offering no concessions at all on contentious issues related to Hong Kong’s political system.
The Hong Kong system is separate from China’s under the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement signed with the United Kingdom on the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997.
Trips to Beijing
Mark Pinkstone, an aide to legislator Regina Ip who stood against Lam in the March election, and a former Hong Kong government spokesman during the British colonial era, noted that “in December 2016 Lam made frequent trips to Beijing to discuss ‘cultural’ matters (a diplomatic term for clandestine operations)”.
“Almost every weekend prior to the elections clandestine meetings were held in Shenzhen [in mainland China] with Beijing officials, members of the Hong Kong Liaison Office and election committee members to discuss the outcome of the March 26 chief executive elections. No names were ever mentioned for fear of reprisal,” he added in a commentary published in local newspapers on 3 April.
Under the 'one country, two systems' principle and Hong Kong’s Basic Law “no department of the Central People’s Government and no province, autonomous region, or municipality directly under the central government may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own, in accordance with this law”, Pinkstone noted.
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