Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp faces an uncertain future as dozens of leading figures face serious charges
As the 47 pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong appeared in court for the second day, all sides are trying to observe how the mass-prosecution is going to impact the city’s opposition force. Some long-time observers of Hong Kong think the event will force the pro-democracy camp to try to find a lifeline for the movement as space for them to operate continues to shrink.
For the second day in a row, 47 pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong appeared in court after they were charged with “subversion of state power” for participating in an unofficial primary last year. The international community is closely monitoring how this case develops. Michael Mo, a district councilor from Hong Kong’s Tuen Mun district, said the mass-prosecution is a serious blow to the pro-democracy camp.
Power for Democracy, the organization that was in charge of facilitating the primary for the pro-democracy camp, announced on February 27 that they would cease all operation and disband, citing the latest development in Hong Kong as the primary reason.
“Under the latest development in Hong Kong and the new era of the political situation, the coordination work by the Power for Democracy had accomplished its historical mission,” said convenor Andrew Chiu Ka-yin. Chiu, the Vice Chairman of Eastern District Council.
“In the future, we must, under the Basic Law, the national security law and the framework of ‘one country, two systems’, serve the Hong Kong community via different means, obey the law and safeguard the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong,” the group wrote in the public statement on Facebook.
Michael Mo thinks that after the Power for Democracy ceased operation, it will be hard for the pro-democracy camp to have a coordinated mechanism to unite the whole camp effectively. “The mass-prosecution also means that there could hardly be any force to synergize the pro-democracy camp in the near future,” he said.
“There are no incentives for the pro-democracy camp to prepare the best candidates for future elections, and Beijing will still have the means to disqualify pro-democracy candidates in the future.”
As for the younger generation within the pro-democracy camp, Mo thinks recent developments really deter them from entering elections in the future. “Some district councilors might have considered running in legislative council elections as a possible career path two years ago, but now, that path no longer exists for most of us,” said Mo.
Jeffrey Ngo, a former member of the disbanded political organization Demosisto, predicts that based on the current trend, most defendants in the case may not be granted bail and if the court decides to postpone the case for a few months, they could be imprisoned before even being formally sentenced.
“This case shows that the idea that the national security law doesn’t cover what you have done prior to last June is a lie,” said Ngo. “Based on the evidence submitted by the prosecutor, there are Facebook posts or actions prior to June 30, 2020. This shows that no one is safe and it will further instill fear among Hong Kongers, especially those who have in the past, been somewhat public.”
How can the pro-democracy camp maintain the resistance?
Many observers think that since the National Security Law came into effect, the Hong Kong government has been using it to put pressure on different aspects of civil society. Michael Mo says most of the paths that the pro-democracy camp used to rely on have now been blocked by the government.
For the pro-democracy camp, in order to prevent supporters from leaving, they need to sit down and try to seek other mandates. On the other hand, the pro-democracy camp also needs to think about whether civil society has defined a path to influence the policy-making process without the need of holding political offices.
“The whole pro-democracy camp is kind of losing direction and it looks like they have nowhere to go,” Mo said. “It remains to be seen whether anyone would dare to talk about a new path for the camp. This needs to be done. If not, the energy or the political momentum would diminish very quickly.”
During the process of applying for bail on Monday, some defendants had promised not to take any foreign media interviews or comment on the National Security Law on social media. Ngo thinks this reflects how broad-ranging the National Security Law can be.
While all sides expected the law to be vague and wide-ranging before it came into effect last year, Ngo said it became clear that the ultimate goal of the law was to completely eradicate any opposition in Hong Kong after the 55 pro-democracy figures were arrested in January.
“It has now been clear that the whole purpose of the National Security Law is to eliminate the opposition,” Ngo said. “It has nothing to do with actual national security.”
Based on this principle, Ngo thinks those who wish to be able to speak their minds freely may either have to be abroad or have to share opinions online anonymously in the foreseeable future. “ I think internet freedom is the next logical target for the Hong Kong government,” he said. “Whether that remains a safe avenue or not is in doubt.”
As the situation in Hong Kong continues to deteriorate, Ngo argues that it won’t be realistic to mount any serious opposition from within Hong Kong. “I think the pressure on Beijing and the Hong Kong government will have to come from outside because Hong Kong is basically a closed cage,” he said.
“The diaspora community, especially civil society figures or dissidents who have left Hong Kong, will play a much bigger role in terms of shaping the democracy movement in Hong Kong as a whole.”
Will there still be genuine elections in Hong Kong?
Apart from cracking down on civil society through the National Security Law, the Hong Kong government also revealed details of a bill that will require all district councilors in Hong Kong to pledge allegiance to the city’s government and mini-constitution last week. It is viewed by many as one of Beijing’s latest ways to purge the pro-democracy camp.
Michael Mo says since the National Security Law came into effect last year, he has been viewing every day as his possible last day as a district councilor in Hong Kong because he doesn’t know when the government will disqualify him or when the police will arrest or detain him.
“While the current district council’s term lasts until the end of 2023, I still think this is probably the last district council in Hong Kong,” Mo said. “I don’t think Beijing or the Hong Kong government would allow such an advisory body to exist anymore. If Beijing would like to close all the paths for public consultation, there will really be no major difference between Hong Kong and China.”
Jeffrey Ngo thinks that while the Hong Kong government will begin to require district councilors to take oaths, the requirement may not allow the government to disqualify all pro-democracy district councilors overnight. While some district councilors might be disqualified if they refuse to pledge allegiance, those who are willing to follow the regulations could still maintain their seats until the end of their term. However, he still thinks Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp faces a tough future.
As for the legislative council election, which has been postponed to this year, Ngo thinks while the election could take place at some point this year, it might be presented in a form that “resembles an election,” instead of being the kind of election that Hong Kong people are used to.
Over the last few days, several Hong Kong media have reported that Beijing plans to overhaul the existing electoral system in Hong Kong during the upcoming “Two Sessions.” HK01 said sources claimed that Beijing will establish an evaluation mechanism to determine whether candidates fit the criteria of a “patriot” or not, and the mechanism will be implemented at all levels of elections.
“I think ‘the election’ might still exist on paper but it’s not going to be the kind of election that Hong Kongers understand it to be,” Ngo said. “Frankly speaking, no democracy will recognize that kind of election as a legitimate one, but I predict that’s still going to happen. It’s just going to produce a new legislative council with no meaningful opposition.”
This piece was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.