Since Hong Kong’s streets were cleared of demonstrators in December of 2014 following the end of the Umbrella Movement, the trials of movement leaders have been common. Now, almost exactly four years after the end of the mass occupation, nine Umbrella Movement activists face a new trial.
In addition to the trials of the nine activists, a discussion of the Basic Law’s Article 23 – that seemingly allows Hong Kong to maintain relative freedoms – has been a central media focus. Article 23 is essentially tied to Hong Kong’s national security.
The trials and national security legislation proposals have the potential to either bolster or hinder Hong Kong’s democracy movement. In a time where the central tenants of “one country, two systems” are eroding, they can profoundly impact the region’s political future.
The struggle to gain universal suffrage and more autonomy from the Chinese mainland continues this week with the trial of Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Chu Yiu-Ming, three of Hong Kong’s most high-profile democracy activists, in addition to six other activists. Organizations like Amnesty International have called these trials into question given the gap between when the movement occurred and these most recent charges of “public nuisance.”
— Amnesty Hong Kong (@amnestyHK) November 13, 2018
“What is on trial is not just the nine of us,” said Tai in a news conference following the first day of the trial. “What is on trial also is the high degree of autonomy and the rule of law that all Hong Kong people are entitled to.”
Increasing Chinese Authority
When Hong Kong transitioned from being a British colony to a Chinese Special Autonomous Region in 1997, Hong Kong was able to maintain their own rule of law under “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong was part of China, but the policy granted the island territory more autonomy than most Chinese regions.
Initially, Hong Kong maintained a relative degree of independence. However, when Hongkongers desired to elect their own leaders, specifically the chief executive, Beijing stepped in to deny this freedom. Although prior tensions between Hong Kong and Beijing occurred, the 2014 Umbrella Movement served as an unfortunate catalyst increasing Chinese authority.
After the Umbrella Movement, many young movement leaders ran for office winning seats in the Legislative Council. During a swearing-in ceremony, two pro-separatist politicians were denied their seats for refusing to swear loyalty to Beijing in their oaths. In July 2017, four more pro-democracy politicians were purged from office citing similar reasons. In addition to ridding Hong Kong’s political arena of some of its strongest political critics, movement leaders like Joshua Wong and Nathan Law have been in and out of court.
The most recent trial is yet another attempt to squander political dissidence in the region. Chinese authority over the island territory has increased under the leadership of Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Xi has consolidated power in the mainland, and with the seemly continuous trials of democracy activities, it seems that he has the same goal for Hong Kong.
Is Article 23 Hong Kong’s Only Hope?
Some believe that revisiting Basic Law Article 23 may hold the answer to preserving Hong Kong’s autonomy. The Basic Law was written during Hong Kong’s period of transition between 1984 and 1997 as a result of the handover negotiations between Britain and China. The Law was formulated in a way that seemingly allowed the region to maintain relative freedom, but established conditions that allowed China to exert more control under the guise of “national security.”
In 2003, national security legislation known as Article 23 was proposed but subsequently shelved because it took too extreme a stance dealing with treason, sedition, and subversion. Despite not being enacted, elements of the article were essentially used to remove the pro-separatist and dissident politicians.
Former Administrative Officer in Hong Kong Rachel Cartland, among others, has written that reexamining Article 23 legislation would give activists, politicians, and lawyers a clearer sense of what is deemed “illegal” in the region’s current ambiguous legal sphere. A clarity that could be helpful to those currently on trial for “public nuisance.”
While proposing national security legislation under this political climate could potentially backfire and give Beijing even more authority, Article 23 may be one of the last remaining hopes for a democratic Hong Kong. The region’s autonomy has always been rooted in their rule of law and perhaps using the legal system may be the answer to fending off China’s encroaching authority.
Benefitting Hong Kong’s Democracy
Unfortunately, pro-democracy political leaders do not have a majority in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Pushing Article 23 forward in a way that would benefit the democracy movement would require tactful negotiation. If successful, the law could delineate clearer guidelines establishing freedom of speech and assembly. If the proposal were to fail, China and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s administration would have more authority to target pro-separatist and pro-democracy activists under stricter laws like treason and subversion.
Hong Kong’s rule of law has always been at the heart of the region’s independence from China. Based on the rulings of previous umbrella movement related trials, the outcome of the current nine activists on trial looks grim. However, the court may still provide the best answer to Hong Kong’s democratic struggle. Pushing Article 23 may be risky, but it may be Hong Kong’s only chance to resist Chinese authoritarianism.