Umbrella revolution leaders convicted

Hong Kong’s Occupy movement leaders are convicted for causing a public nuisance, in the latest move by the Chinese sponsored government to stifle freedoms of speech and expression.

Background

Hong Kong is an autonomous territory that holds a separate political and economic system from China. Under the principal – One Country, Two Systems – it exercises its own independent executive, legislative and judiciary powers, coming under China in foreign affairs as well as defence. From 1842 to 1941, Hong Kong was formally ruled by the British under a lease that stipulated that Britain would leave the territory in 1997. The One Country, Two Systems principal is to be upheld until 2047, after which no specification was made of how much the Chinese government would be involved in Hong Kong’s governance.

In 2014, there were a series of mass protests that took place in Hong Kong that came to be known as the Umbrella Revolution. Largely organised by students, it protested the reforms that had been proposed for Hong Kong’s electoral system. Carrie Lam, the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong was China’s preferred candidate and won a highly restricted election. She has been criticised by detractors for being a pro-Chinese government. Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken an aggressive stance against regions that assert their independence. However, he has also vowed to maintain the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy noting, “[We must] maintain the central authority in Hong Kong and guarantee Hong Kong’s autonomy at the same time.”

Analysis

Nine democracy leaders, comprising the last group to be tried for their role in the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, were found guilty for causing a public nuisance by obstructing major Hong Kong thoroughfares in a bid to compel authorities to counter their political demands. In addition, three of the originators of the Occupy movement, academics Benny Tai Yiu-ting, Dr. Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming were convicted of conspiracy to cause public nuisance and inciting others to commit a public nuisance. However, the three were acquitted of a charge of inciting others to incite. Some face a sentence of up to seven years for each charge as outlined in the 286-page ruling. The trial took 18 working days, although it began in November 2018.

The unprecedented civil disobedience exercise caught the Chinese sponsored government off-guard, although there were no significant normative or tangible gains from the demonstration. The trial comes at a time when China is caught in a geopolitical struggle within its sphere of influence to project its power. Taiwan has recently been at loggerheads with China, even agreeing to arms deals with the US, in an apparent rejection of the ‘One China’ policy which is constructed in a similar vein as China’s Hong Kong ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policies. It is within China’s interests to ensure that similar mass demonstrations against its control over Hong Kong are discouraged. China needs to maintain its control over Hong Kong which sits on the edge of mainland China, in stark contrast to Taiwan’s position as an island off the coast. China’s failure to exercise its control over Hong Kong would serve as an important normative, political and geo-strategic failure.

For citizens of Hong Kong, the results of the trial are a significant development in the fight for greater autonomy from China. President Xi’s stated intention to uphold the nature of Hong Kong’s status quo is largely suspect due to continued activity designed to quell an uprising of civil disobedience. This highlights the difference in perspective in what constitutes two systems. China is likely to believe that any system that does not come under Beijing’s direct rule is a different system, while the people of Hong Kong are likely to hold that a different system demands less Chinese interference. Supporters cheered the nine convicted leaders with a round of applause, and the application of a minor infraction of public nuisance could be a spur on further acts of civil disobedience.

Of primary importance is the ability of the Occupy movement to continue their endeavour against Chinese interference in Hong Kong. What is yet to be seen is whether the initiative of the movement is galvanised by the recent conviction or if it is dampened, particularly relating to civil disobedience.

Assessment

Our assessment is that citizens of Hong Kong are likely to be galvanised by the outcome of the recent convictions, engaging in dialogue and potentially more acts of civil disobedience. We believe that China is likely to continue to engage in activity that seeks to promote its primacy over Hong Kong. We believe that Hong Kong’s current political status is an inconvenient reality for China, a status quo that China will continue to seek to alter. We believe that towards this end, China will continue to use the judicial system of Hong Kong in order to stifle any acts of civil disobedience and opposition to the Chinese sponsored government. We also believe that China will continue to seek to water down the independence of Hong Kong, potentially motivating further acts of opposition. 

Image Courtesy: Pasu Au Yeung [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]