Hong Kong's police state strengthens under COVID-19 shutdown

Police arrest a protester in Prince Edward station in Hong Kong on August 31.

Even amid the COVID-19 crisis, the pro-democracy movement and freedom of speech are under attack, as the legal system cows under pressure and police brutality worsens.

More than 10 well-known democratic leaders were arrested on April 18, including barrister and founding chairperson of the Democratic Party Martin Lee, also known as the “Father of Hong Kong democracy”, and the Labour Party’s Lee Cheuk-yan.

The police accused them of organising, publicising and taking part in unauthorised assemblies from last August to November. The pro-democracy movement said it is yet another attempt to repress opposition to the Carrie Lam administration.

Hong Kong has become a police state with the police acting with impunity. They cover their faces with masks and sunglasses and refuse to display their identification numbers or show their warrant cards.

An Indonesian journalist, who was hit in the eye by police in Wan Chai, filed a complaint but the police refused to investigate. A Christian priest, Chan Yan-ming, has written an open letter calling on Christian police to think about their oppressive behaviour in suppressing protests.

A female protester testified that she was gang-raped by police after being arrested. She has since had an abortion and fled to Taiwan. The police denied her accusation and dropped the investigation; they now claim she is a “wanted person”.

Police have also been found abusing the COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings of more than four people. On March 31, protesters organised a memorial action at the Prince Edward MTR station to remember the “831 太子站事件 incident” in which police attacked pro-democracy protesters on August 31, killing at least five people.

At the memorial, the police ordered five people to line up, then fined them for being in a gathering of more than four people.

On May 8, protesters were attacked by pro-government supporters. Police arrested the victims but allowed the armed pro-government supporters to leave.

The president of Hong Kong Education University student union ‒ one of those arrested ‒ applied for a court order to obtain the CCTV footage to sue the police for damages. The metro company spent more than HK$1 million to hire a senior barrister to resist the court order. A High Court judge found in favour of the student and ordered the company to produce the footage. It produced an incomplete version.

Pro-democracy MPs attacked

Lawmakers are also being stymied. On May 8, a Legislative Council meeting, due to be chaired by a pro-democracy councillor, was brutally taken over by pro-Beijing councillors with the assistance of so-called “politically-neutral” staff and security guards. Most pro-democracy legislators were then forcibly evicted from the chamber. One pro-democracy lawmaker was assaulted by a pro-Beijing legislator on the stairs and ended up in hospital.

A key reason for pro-Beijing parties to speed up the election of the chairperson of the House Committee, which is responsible for deciding the order of business on the Council’s agenda, is to expedite the enactment of the national anthem law and the national security law by the end of the legislative year in July. The national security law, to combat so-called “domestic terrorism”, “foreign interference” and pro-independence forces, has been shelved since 2003.

If passed, these laws will help Beijing disqualify pro-democracy candidates before September’s Legislative Council election. Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong is warning of a landslide victory to the pro-democracy camp, describing it as a potential “seizure of power” and saying that resistance against the pro-democracy camp is a “battle for sovereignty”.

Local judges are increasingly signalling allegiance to Beijing with their verdicts on anti-government protest cases.

In April, District Court Judge Kwok Wai-kin expressed sympathy for a man jailed for stabbing three people, one of whom almost died at Lennon Wall, during the anti-extradition bill protests in August.

Despite the fact that the defendant had first talked to the victims at Lennon Wall, then went home to collect two knives and returned to the Wall to attack them — making his intent to kill clear — Kwok described the defendant as “an involuntary sacrifice”. Kwok also said pro-democracy protesters had “ruthlessly trampled on his right to work, live and survive”.

Audrey Eu, former chairperson of the Hong Kong Bar Association, criticised Kwok for presenting his personal views.

The Justice Department sent the case to the District Court, where the maximum sentence is only seven years, instead of the High Court, whose criminal jurisdiction is unlimited.

There are many other cases in which judges have expressed their political preferences, including one in which a pro-democracy lawmaker was convicted of assault for using a megaphone.

Last week, another 230 pro-democracy protesters were arrested, bringing the total to more than 8300. Almost 600 are being charged with “rioting” and more are being charged each day. Many face trials.

On May 15, one of the very first protesters to be charged with “rioting” was sentenced to four years in jail, even though he pleaded guilty in a bid to seek a shorter jail term. He went to the protest but did not hurt anyone or possess a weapon, but the judge said his action was “a direct attack on the rule of law”.

Beijing interference

Beijing’s Liaison Office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council have condemned pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok for attempting to delay the passing of the national anthem and national security laws.

The Liason Office also stated publicly that it is not governed by Hong Kong’s laws, and that it has supervisory power over Hong Kong’s Special Administrative Region government.

The Liaison Office has been criticised by the general public and legal community for interfering in the domestic affairs of Hong Kong, a breach of the Basic Law. Johannes Chan, Hong Kong University-based law professor, said the Liaison Office has never enjoyed supervisory power over Hong Kong in the Basic Law.

On April 18, the Hong Kong government and the Liaison Office responded, by clarifying that Article 22 of the Basic Law does not apply to Beijing’s Liaison Office. The Liaison Office declared that two agencies — the Liaison Office and Hong Kong Macau Office — are authorised by the central government and have the right to supervise and handle Hong Kong affairs.

In a further development, the Hong Kong government revised its media statement twice, after finding that it contradicted Beijing’s stand. Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Patrick Nip Tak-kuen apologised for the confusion and was later replaced by the Director of Immigration Erick Tsang Kwok-wai in a cabinet reshuffle announced by Carrie Lam. The reshuffle represents a tightening of Beijing’s control over Hong Kong’s administration and its ambition to suppress anti-government sentiment.

[Wlam* is a Hong Kong student studying in Sydney. His name has been changed for security reasons.]

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