Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Hong Kong: The Show (Trial) Must Go On

“Bravery is not about never being afraid, but about feeling fear and still choosing to do the right thing” (Joshua Wong).

On February 6 —two years after their arrest on the charge of “conspiring to subvert state power”—the trial of the “Hong Kong 47” finally began. The Hong Kong 47 group includes former members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and other leaders of Hong Kong’s long-standing and intense human rights protest campaign (from 2014 to 2019). Among them are Benny Tai, law professor and organizer of the famous nonviolent “Umbrella Movement” of 2014 —and Joshua Wong, onetime leader of the students of 2014 who later became a political activist and has already served two short prison sentences. Most of these alleged “criminals” were denied bail, and have been forced to remain in jail since 2021. There are some other high profile trials for allegedly seditious activity—distinct from the charges against “the 47”—that have yet to begin, the most well-known being the upcoming trial of Jimmy Lai, the septuagenarian former publisher of the most prominent opposition newspaper, “Apple Daily.”

I used to post more frequently about Hong Kong, especially during the long Summer and Autumn of 2019. So much has happened since the overwhelming victory of the Pro-Democracy supporters in the November 2019 “district council” elections. It is important to recall some details of this stunning event: In Hong Kong’s system, “District Council” officers have only local administrative duties and no political power, which was why they were the only officials chosen by free and fair elections throughout the territory. But in 2019. the democracy movement ran its own candidates in most of the districts, turning an otherwise politically insignificant election into a de-facto referendum on recent events. The people were given a chance through an unrigged ballot box to present—even if only symbolically—their position regarding Beijing’s incremental usurpation of Hong Kong’s guaranteed domestic political and institutional autonomy. After months of social crisis and protests in the streets, Hong Kongers voted in unprecedented numbers throughout the territory, knowing full well what their votes would express to Beijing and to the wider world that was watching. Seldom had an East Asian election so gripped the attention of peoples outside the region. All things considered, the resulting massive paradigm shift in favor of pro-democracy candidates in the election demonstrated that the people repudiated Beijing’s agenda by a wide margin (see HERE for my report at the time).
The rulers of China, no doubt, realized that the democracy movement had to be stopped. With their obsession for political and social control, who knows what desperate measures the CCP might have taken, were it not for other circumstances that arose suddenly to change the entire focus of global news. Thus, while the whole world was struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, mainland China’s “PartyState” saw the chance to effectively (and quietly) dismantle the distinctive Hong Kong system that it had previously agreed to preserve until at least 2047.

The Chinese Communist Party and the State organs it controls imposed a “National Security Law” on Hong Kong in June 2020, bypassing what remained of the territorial legislative process (and—need it even be said?—without consulting or even informing in advance the seven million people who live there). Since then, Beijing has installed a new set of political and law enforcement personnel to carry out a Stalinesque purge of all democratic sympathy in Hong Kong. Thousands of arrests have been made, with activists denied bail and left behind bars waiting for long-delayed trials. Many of these trials end with convictions, in spite of the fact that Hong Kong’s judiciary is perhaps the last branch of the island’s “System” (remember “One Country, Two Systems”?) that retains some shred of independence according to its continuing usage of English “common law” traditions and recognition of human rights. (The judges still wear the antiquated “white wigs” in the courtroom.)

Sadly, common law precedents and classical civil liberties don’t have much chance of holding up against the New Chinese Empire. The CCP claims that the nation they control observes the “rule of law.” Unfortunately, it appears that what this means in practice is that, if they want to persecute you, they find a law (or invent a new one) and use it as a pretext to harass you, accuse you of violating the law, arrest you, roll you around in the Bureaucracy until you are exhausted, and finally—even if they can’t make a case against you in court—they have dissipated your influence, destroyed your business, bankrupted you, and have made you “lose face” as much as possible.

This process is referred to by its critics as “Lawfare.” As a technique for social control, it’s more efficient than old fashioned Maoist “re-education through labor” (unless you’re a Uighur, in which case you are being “re-educated”…indefinitely, and if it’s deemed necessary, to death).

But what are the specific “subversion charges” raised against the Hong Kong 47? As far as I can tell, their “conspiracy” involved collaborative political tactics that any other democratic country in the world would recognize as entirely legitimate, and well within their rights as citizens running for (or working with) candidates for an elected legislature. The Hong Kong Legislative Council, however,  was rigged from the start to ensure a large majority of pro-Beijing legislators chosen not to represent the people, but rather specific business and social sectors who depend on Beijing. Only 40% of the LegCo was chosen by popular vote, which (not surprisingly) has consistently returned a sizable block of democratic legislators who opposed Beijing encroachment within Hong Kong. Though they were unable to win on controversial votes within the LegCo, they remained a public voice of transparency and protest against pro-Beijing schemes, capable of sounding alarms to the people about proposals for imminent change. The Hong Kong people would then take to the streets and protest until the offensive proposals were withdrawn. As we may remember, this was what began the “Revolution of 2019”—the enormous popular protest marches against a proposal for extradition of alleged criminals wanted in mainland China.

What happened early in 2020 was that minority partisans made an effort toward the strategic organization of their forces. They organized an informal “primary election” that would allow their constituents to unite behind a slate of candidates who might be able to work together and exercise some real power in the LegCo: for example, by holding up the passage of the (Beijing appointed) Chief Executive’s annual budget proposal. The primary was apparently “illegal” even then, perhaps since Hong Kong had always forbidden formal political parties. In any case, no one considered it to be anything like treasonous or subversive at the time. It took place unhindered and hundreds of thousands of voters openly participated.

But the rest of the world turned its eyes away from Hong Kong as the year progressed and nations began struggling with their own COVID emergencies. Beijing saw the opportunity to wage Lawfare, and they did not hesitate to act. On June 1, 2020 they announced the new National Security Law, that effectively criminalized—in terms that savored of treason—all acts of opposition to the government. At first they assured people that the law was not retroactive, but that distinction soon crumbled into irrelevance, and those who stand trial today are being charged with “subversion” under a law that didn’t even exist when they committed their alleged “crime.”

Interestingly, however, 31 of the 47 defendants pleaded guilty to the charges (including Joshua Wong and Benny Tai). One reason for this may be that—knowing that the court proceedings are essentially a Show Trial and that their convictions are inevitable—they pleaded guilty in the hopes of receiving a lesser sentence. Another reason may be that they wanted to acknowledge that “subverting [Beijing’s] state power” was ultimately what they aimed to accomplish by organizing an opposition primary. They were determined to do everything they could to “subvert” the neocolonial foreign power—the Chinese Communist PartyState—that was relentlessly crushing their particular local identity and their corresponding human right to self-determination. One defendant commented in words to the effect that “I am guilty of trying to subvert the power of a totalitarian state.”

These guilty pleas, however, do not procure exemption from the show trial. All of the 47 are required to stand in court through what promises to be a three month ordeal. They will not be sentenced until after those who are convicted in spite of their attempt to defend their innocence (conviction may lead to life imprisonment). Moreover, the court itself has been constituted—by government demand—in a most unusual way. The classic common law right to a “trial by jury” has been decreed to be inadequate for the gravity of this case. Instead, a panel of three judges has been appointed to decide the matter. Can anyone imagine any acquittals emerging from such a tribunal?

This is how Beijing and its running dogs wage “Lawfare.”

Lawfare has invaded Hong Kong to expedite the process of absorption that Hong Kongers have resisted since the British handed them off to the overlordship of mainland China’s Communist PartyState in 1997. It is too facile to reduce Hong Kong’s distinctiveness to the consequences of 19th century Western Imperialism. British aggression and the deplorable opium trade did draw its borders, but—amidst the imposition of many burdens and contradictions—the British also contributed the ideal of freedom and the governing processes of a Western-style civil society, while Cantonese migrants built and inhabited an entirely new city on what had up to that time been a sparsely populated rocky coast. They built a unique Asian city with its own history separate from the mainland for the past 170+ years. After 1949 Hong Kong grew enormously, serving as a refuge for many Chinese who were fleeing the Communist revolution and the political and social catastrophes of the Maoist era that followed.

This helps explain something of the special character and resilience of Hong Kong people. But there is more that distinguishes them. Over the past decade, the culture of Hong Kong has been powerfully impacted by the question of the meaning of freedom. What kind of freedom is worthy of human dignity? The CCP State is in many ways unaware of its own brutality. It believes that the future it is planning for Hong Kong is full of opportunities for advancement in prosperity, industriousness, technical creativity, and material comfort. Hong Kongers know that the gross incompetence and austerity of the Mao era are over. They know the new “New China” that lies across the border in Guangdong, the glitter of the multi-city metropolis surrounding the Pearl River Delta on the South China Sea, bursting with unimaginable economic growth, and inviting Hong Kong to join—perhaps even to lead—this region as it becomes the center of global commerce in the future. This is a vital aspect of the Chinese Dream that promises to lead the world of tomorrow.

Is this not “freedom” enough?

It is certainly a temptation, and not a stupid one either. If all we hope for is limited to the boundaries of this present life, what value does personal freedom really have? It it not a small sacrifice to make in exchange for the glories of material wealth, the mastery of power over the things of this world, the opportunity to collaborate in the building of a harmonious society?

It would be hard to answer this question if all we meant by “personal freedom” was the license to define ourselves and our values in whatever way we choose, without any responsibility to anyone but ourselves, without the recognition of a reality greater than our own measure, or the possibility of an unconditional commitment to any “other”. Is human personal freedom nothing more than the “right to choose” as an end in itself, rather than as the means to seek and follow the meaning of reality and the vocation of our lives, to adhere to what is good, to give and receive love? Of course everyone admits that these goals are the object of freedom, but for many the overarching goal of human freedom is to have power over reality and to be able to reduce goodness and love to our own measure. No one wants to admit that this kind of “autonomy” is an enervating illusion. No one would fight for the right to be absolute sovereign of a narcissistic dreamworld that numbs them to the actual world, wherein they are in fact slaves to the powers-that-be?

The Hong Kong 47 —along with all their compatriots—must keep searching for true human freedom. How does the search and struggle for freedom endure in prison? Among the pro-Democracy contingent in Hong Kong, there are some prominent Christians who are deeply motivated by their faith in Christ. He alone gives true freedom, and he calls out to everyone from within their own need for freedom. All those who hunger for freedom and dignity are in some way responding to him and following him, even if they don’t (yet) know him. Those who do know him and are faithful to him will generate spaces of life and community no matter where they are.

Please do not forget to pray for Hong Kong.

Law professor Benny Tai posted some reflections shortly after his arrest two years ago. This was one of his final posts before the internet was taken beyond his reach two years ago. A quotation from it can serve as a brief conclusion to these observations.

Love is Patience (Benny Tai)

There have been a few moments in the past few years 
where I feel the limits of patience.
But the Lord Jesus always makes me feel His love again 
in my weakest moments.
He loves me, loves Hong Kong, loves the world, 
including those who reject Him.
For love He is constantly patient, waiting for them to turn and change.
When I understand why love is patient and willing to love like the Lord, 
patience is born again.