A court in Hong Kong on Tuesday handed down a jail term of 15 months’ imprisonment to one of the organizers of a now-banned vigil marking the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, as newly chosen lawmakers took their oath in a Legislative Council (LegCo) stacked with supporters of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Chow Hang-tung, a 36-year-old rights lawyer, was handed the sentence by magistrate Amy Chan, and responded by reading out the names of the victims of the massacre from the dock.
The court found Chow guilty of “inciting others to take part in an illegal assembly” on the basis of two social media posts she made ahead of the June 4, 1989 massacre anniversary in 2021, calling on people to light candles in honor of massacre victims.
“The message this verdict sends is that lighting a candle is a crime, that using words can be a crime,” Chow told the court. “The only way to defend freedom of speech is to continue to express ourselves.”
“The real crime is using laws to cover up for murderers and to erase the victims in the name of the state,” she said, to applause from the public gallery.
Magistrate Chan then ordered police to take down the ID card numbers of anyone who had applauded.
“The law never allows anyone to exercise their freedom by unlawful means,” Chan told the court, saying Chow had shown no remorse and was “self-righteous” in attitude.
Chow was already behind bars awaiting trial along with other senior members of the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Democratic Patriotic Movements of China, which led the vigils for more than three decades, the only public commemorations of the 1989 bloodshed to take place on Chinese soil.
The 32-year-old Alliance stands accused of acting as the agent of a foreign power, with Chow, Albert Ho, and Lee Cheuk-yan all held on suspicion of “incitement to subvert state power,” and the group’s assets frozen.
The group was among several prominent civil society groups to disband following investigation by national security police under the national security law that took effect from July 1, 2020.
The annual Tiananmen vigils the Alliance hosted on June 4 often attracted more than 100,000 people, but the gatherings have been banned since 2020, with the authorities citing coronavirus restrictions.
China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office has accused the organization of inciting hostility and hatred against the CCP and the central government.
The law forms part of Beijing’s claims that recent waves of popular protest for greater democracy and against the erosion of Hong Kong’s promised freedoms were instigated by hostile foreign powers intent on undermining CCP rule and destroying social stability in Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, dozens of new lawmakers elected under rules that effectively excluded pro-democracy voices were sworn in under the national emblem of China, and after singing the national anthem, the first time the patriotic hymn has been used in an oath-taking ceremony.
Ninety LegCo members were sworn in as pro-China media welcomed a “new era” for the legislature, welcoming a “new atmosphere” of scant opposition to the government.
“Having both national and regional emblems [in the LegCo chamber] is more solemn,” LegCo president Andrew Leung told reporters. “As president, I am more confident with the national emblem there.”
Control by Beijing
Current affairs commentator To Yiu-ming said this LegCo was essentially chosen by the CCP.
“They are all from different sectors, but they are all basically fellow travelers,” To said. “Now, Beijing has peace of mind, because it controls LegCo completely.”
He said the fact that some lawmakers took their oaths in Mandarin, rather than Hong Kong’s lingua franca, Cantonese, further reflects the shift in power in LegCo.
“This means that in future, Beijing will allow people who don’t speak Cantonese to sit in LegCo,” To said. “Just as in the British colonial era, [some] didn’t understand Cantonese and took their oaths in English.”
“The reason is the same; it shows that the focus of power in LegCo has completely shifted … to center on the CCP,” he said.
A recent public opinion poll by the Hong Kong Institute of Public Opinion (PORI) showed falling interest in politics among the wider population, with only 26 percent of people saying they were concerned about political matters.
Former Yau Tsim Mong District Councillor Owan Li said the result was likely the result of learned helplessness amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent under the national security law.
“They can’t feel invested in their political system, or in social issues and current affairs, or even participate in it, so it’s better to do something that is within their control,” Li told RFA.
“They just think, OK, I won’t care, forget it: if I make enough money, I can emigrate.”
A recent opinion poll by the Democratic Party found that around 58 percent of people no longer like living in Hong Kong, while one percent had plans to emigrate within the next three years.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.