Who are the democracy activists facing jail?

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Who are the democracy activists facing jail?

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The Hong Kong 47 were charged three years ago in what was seen as the biggest crackdown under the National Security Law

From a 68-year-old former opposition lawmaker to a 27-year-old student activist, some of Hong Kong’s best-known pro-democracy campaigners await a verdict on subversion charges this week.

They are among 47 protesters and activists – better known as the Hong Kong 47 – who were charged three years ago in what was seen as the biggest crackdown under the National Security Law (NSL) imposed by China.

Officials accused the 47 – eight women and 39 men – of trying to “overthrow” the government by running unofficial primaries to pick opposition candidates for local elections.

The primaries were held in July 2020 in defiance of Hong Kong officials and amid warnings that they could breach the NSL, which had come into effect days before.

Beijing defends the law, which followed mass pro-democracy protests, as necessary to maintain stability, but critics say it has stripped the city of its prized autonomy and freedoms.

Who are the Hong Kong 47?

Some are famous, such as opposition lawmakers – Claudia Mo, Helena Wong, Kwok ka-ki – and icons of the 2014 pro-democracy protests that rocked Hong Kong – Joshua Wong and Benny Tai.

But many like Owen Chow, Ventus Lau and Tiffany Yuen represented a new generation of vocal activists. Mr Lau and Mr Chow were among hundreds who stormed the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo) and spray-painted Hong Kong’s emblem in what became a pivotal moment in the 2019 protests.

Then there are those who were not involved in politics but were galvanised by the 2019 protests – social workers like Hendrick Lui, entrepreneurs like Mike Lam and a former nurse, Winnie Yu.

Sixteen of the 47 have pleaded not guilty and, if convicted on Thursday, could be jailed for life, although sentencing is expected later.

The remaining 31 have pleaded guilty. Four of them testifed for the prosecution, including former lawmakers Au Nok-hin and Andrew Chiu. While this typically leads to a reduced sentence, it is unclear if it applies to the NSL.

“They are forced to make the impossible decision between pleading guilty to a non-existent crime for a potential reduction in sentence, or fighting a losing battle under the unjust national security law,” Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director Dana Young said in a report.

Other prominent figures such as Nathan Law and ex-legislator Ted Hui also ran in the primaries, but fled Hong Kong.

So by the time the 47 were arrested in early 2021, most of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy campaigners were behind bars or in exile. Most of the accused have been in jail since then as pre-trial detentions have become the norm under NSL.

The professor – Benny Tai

Getty Images Benny Tai at a rally Getty Images

Benny Tai made his foray into politics in 2013

China called him a “hardcore troublemaker” for advocating Hong Kong independence and describing the Communist Party’s rule as a “dictatorship”.

A scholar and law professor, Benny Tai first drew attention when he wrote a newspaper column proposing an occupy sit-in to demand greater democracy.

This eventually became the pro-democracy Occupy Central movement that he founded along with two others. It was a historic civil disobedience campaignt that called for fair and free elections in Hong Kong.

The movement died down but five years later, in 2019, Mr Tai was sentenced to prison for his role in the protests.

A year later, after the NSL was imposed, he was fired from his tenured job at the prestigious University of Hong Kong (HKU) over his criminal conviction.

Mr Tai accused the university of bowing to Chinese pressure and called it the “end of academic freedom” in the city.

“I am heartbroken to witness the demise of my beloved university,” the 60-year-old later said in a Facebook post.

By then, he was already facing accusations of subversion under NSL for organising what Hong Kong and Beijing officals called an “illegal” primary.

The student – Joshua Wong

Getty Johsua Wong screams as he is detained at a pro-democracy protest Getty

Joshua Wong is arguably one of Hong Kong’s most recognisable faces

Arguably Hong Kong’s most famous pro-democracy activist, Joshua Wong’s journey into activism started when he was just 14.

By 2014, he had become the face of the Umbrella Movement, a mass student protests with the umbrella as a symbol, which sprang up alongside the Occupy Central sit-in.

He was just 20 when his activism first landed him in jail. He had more spells in jail, including one in 2019, when he walked out a day after hundreds of thousands marched against a hugely controversial extradition bill – it would allow Hong Kongers to be sent to mainland China to face trial.

The protests against the bill engulfed Hong Kong for months. Mr Wong was among thousands who held a 15-hour siege of police headquarters in Wan Chai district – they pelted the building with eggs and sprayed graffiti on its walls – in June of that year.

Prosecutors said he led the protest, pointing to a video of him calling for the crowd to “completely besiege police headquarters”. Although Mr Wong was a well-known campaigner, the 2019 protests were widely seen as a spontaneous, “leaderless” movement.

He was jailed for his role in them – and placed in solitary confinement.

But he remained defiant after pleading guilty: “Perhaps the authorities wish me to stay in prison one term after another. But I am persuaded that neither prison bars, nor election ban, nor any other arbitrary powers would stop us from activism.”

He was still serving his sentence when he was charged with subversion under NSL.

The ‘revolutionary’ – Long hair

Getty Leung Kwok-hung held a yellow umbrella in LegCoGetty

Leung Kwok-hung held a yellow umbrella in parliament as a form of protest

Former opposition lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, better known as Long Hair for his coiffure, once described himself as a “Marxist revolutionary”.

The 68-year-old was known for his political theatrics – one of his singature moves involved hurling bananas as a sign of protest. When he was sworn in again as a lawmaker in 2016, he released a balloon with a political banner and held a yellow umbrella, declaring that the “Umbrella movement would never end”.

This got him disqualified from the council. He was arrested and had repeated stints in jail for taking part in the 2019 protests.

After the NSL was imposed in 2020, he married his long-time partner, Vanessa Chan, also known as Chan Po-ying, who is a prominent activist. They were among the founding members of a political party, the League of Social Democrats.

They said they decided to marry because should one of them be jailed, they would have greater legal rights such as prison visitation.

Forty days after the wedding, Mr Leung was charged with subversion over the primary.

The longtime activist – Claudia Mo

Getty Claudia Mo in LegCo  Getty

Claudia Mo previously covered the Tiananmen crackdown as a journalist

Claudia Mo, known affectionately in Cantonese as Auntie Mo, was a prominent opposition lawmaker.

She had been a journalist at the AFP news agency, where she covered the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

The 67-year-old helped set up the opposition Civic Party in 2006 and by 2012, she won a seat in LegCo – she gave up British citizenship to hold office.

She was among 15 lawmakers who resigned en masse from LegCo after four pro-democracy lawmakers were ousted in November 2020. The move left LegCo with no opposition presence.

“We had to,” she said at the time. “We need to protest against what could be the ultimate Beijing crackdown on Hong Kong – to silence the last bit of dissent in the city.”

Police “smashed through into the living room” to arrest her in the early hours of 6 January 2021, the FT reported, citing an unnamed source who described the raid as “sheer thuggery”.

She has been in jail throughout. When her husband, British journalist Philip Bowring, was critically ill, Ms Mo was not allowed to visit him from prison.

The LGBT campaigner – Jimmy Sham

Getty Jimmy Sham at a protest  Getty

Jimmy Sham is a prominent LGBTQ activist

A long-time political and LGBTQI activist, Jimmy Sham also led one of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy groups, the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF).

The group disbanded in 2021, saying it could no longer operate amid “unprecedented” challenges posed by China’s crackdown.

Mr Sham was violently attacked several times in 2019, and in one instance, was left bloodied on the street, with a head injury. The CHRF accused government supporters of this and other assaults against pro-democracy activists at the time – but it was never proven.

The 37-year-old married his partner in New York in 2013 and fought for Hong Kong to recognise overseas same-sex marriages. Hong Kong’s top court granted him a partial victory in 2023 when it ordered the government to establish a framework to recognise same-sex partnerships.

By then Mr Sham was in prison for his role in the Hong Kong primaries.

Bail has been repeatedly denied, with a judge saying he was a “determined and resolute young man” who would likely continue to commit “acts endangering national security” should he be released.

The journalist – Gwyneth Ho

Getty Gwyneth Ho Getty

Gwyneth Ho shot to fame when she inadvertently live streamed herself being beaten up

Thirty three-year-old Gwyneth Ho worked for several news outlets including BBC Chinese, government-run broadcaster RTHK and Stand News, before pivoting to politics.

She shot to fame when she inadvertently live streamed herself being beaten up by a mob during the 2019 protests. The attack put her in hospital.

She ran in the 2020 primaries deemed illegal by Hong Kong officials – and won a high number of votes in her constituency. Less than a year later, she was arrested.

She said during her trial that it was “inevitable” that the 12 pro-democracy candidates, including her, were disqualified from contesting the legislative elections.

“I believe that most Hong Kongers knew deep down in their hearts that fighting for democracy under the Chinese communist regime has always been a fantasy,” she said.

She was soon stopped by High Court Judge Alex Lee who told her to “calm down”.


With image contributions from Hong Kong InMedia

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