Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow, three student leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong, are facing charges for storming into a government compound at the start of the pro-democracy demonstrations calling for free elections of the territory’s next chief executive after Beijing announced plans to vet potential candidates. Alan Wong at The New York Times reports:
Joshua Wong, now 18, was charged with unlawful assembly and inciting others to take part in the assembly. If convicted, Mr. Wong, who co-founded a youth protest group called Scholarism, faces a maximum of five years in prison.
Alex Chow, a former leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, was charged with unlawful assembly. Nathan Law, the federation’s current leader, was charged with incitement. Last September, they were among a group of students who boycotted classes to protest Beijing’s framework for electing Hong Kong’s next leader. That night, they broke into a fenced square in front of the Hong Kong government headquarters.
That act escalated into clashes with the police as more people gathered in support of the students and of another group of protesters, Occupy Central With Love and Peace, that had joined forces with the two student organizations. The protests spread and prompted sit-ins that shut down three major arteries of Hong Kong for 79 days. [Source]
At Hong Kong Free Press, Karen Cheung reports that four Occupy protesters who broke into the Hong Kong legislature during a November 2014 protest over a draft Internet bill are also facing charges and potential jail time:
Protesters who smashed a door at the Hong Kong legislature during last year’s pro-democracy Occupy protests will now face three-and-a-half months imprisonment instead of 150 hours community service following an appeal by the Department of Justice. The DoJ argued that the original sentence was not heavy enough.
[…] Three were given jail time and released on bail, though their lawyers have said they will appeal the sentence. The fourth defendant’s case has been adjourned to next month in anticipation of a report from the detention centre, as he was only 19 years old at the time of the incident, local media reported. [Source]
The string of prosecutions highlight fears that Hong Kong’s judicial independence is eroding, a fear that has been present since the Chinese government issued a white paper requiring Hong Kong judges to be patriotic. Arthur Lo at the Hong Kong Free Press discusses six challenges facing Hong Kong’s judiciary, including excessive workload and lack of political neutrality:
5. Political neutrality of justice minister under question
Following the implementation of the principal officials accountability system in 2002, the SJ became politically appointed by the chief executive rather than promoted from within the civil service. This means that the SJ is no longer bound to be politically neutral.
Following the publication of the State Council white paper in 2014, SJ Rimsky Yuensaid, “The publication of the white paper does not indicate an attempt [by the Chinese government] to interfere with Hong Kong’s judicial independence.” The Law Society also defended the white paper, saying that “the paper says five times that Hong Kong can enjoy judicial independence and final adjudication.”
However, more than 1,800 legal professionals held a silent march in protest of the white paper in 2014. The Bar Association responded strongly against the white paper: “Any erroneous public categorisation of judges and judicial offices as ‘administrators’ or official exhortation of them to carry out any political mission or task will send out the wrong message to the people of Hong Kong.” [Source]
In addition to judicial independence, Hong Kong’s academic freedom is also coming under fire. Virginia Chang from the Progressive Lawyers Group cites the delayed appointment of Johannes Chan to the position of pro-vice-chancellor at the University of Hong Kong as the latest example of political interference in academia:
The controversy surrounding Professor Johannes Chan’s delayed appointment as pro-vice-chancellor — the post oversees academic staffing and resources — has been well reported. More than seven months ago, a search committee unanimously recommended Chan to the post. Yet, in an “absolutely ridiculous” turn of events (in the professor’s own words), on June 30, the HKU Council decided to delay the appointment, citing the need to first appoint a new deputy vice-chancellor.
[…] The continued deferral of Chan’s appointment comes as a worrying blow to academic freedom in Hong Kong. Academic freedom is of utmost importance to our society because it allows scholars to pursue the truth where it takes them, regardless of political correctness or current orthodoxies, and without any fear of repression by the government. For good reason, it is constitutionally protected under Article 137 of the Basic Law.
What is more unsettling is the pressure on members of the academia to self-censor their research. Apart from attacks on Chan, pro-Beijing media have also targeted other members of the HKU law faculty, accusing professors of trying to “brainwash” their students by assigning “pro-Occupy Central” reading assignments. [Source]
Religious freedom in Hong Kong is also being undermined as Chinese authorities crackdown on the special administrative region’s evangelists, citing national security as a source of concern. Javier Hernandez and Crystal Tse at The New York Times look at China’s tightening grip on Hong Kong’s Christian communities:
In recent months, Chinese officials have barred mainland residents from attending some religious conferences in Hong Kong, increased oversight of mainland programs run by Hong Kong pastors, and issued warnings to outspoken leaders like Mr. Woo.
“Many pastors are worried,” said the Rev. Wu Chi-wai, executive director of Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement, a Christian group. “Some are reconsidering their work in the mainland.”
[…] In March, about 100 people from mainland China were barred from attending a gathering of more than 2,000 pastors and other Christians in Hong Kong, according to China Aid, a Christian human rights group based in Texas. The meeting was hosted by China Ministries International, a California-based group founded by Chinese-Americans that describes its goal as “the Christianization of China.” Pastors from China, the United States and Canada spoke on subjects including church-state relations and marriage. In interviews, several people who were blocked from attending the conference said they were warned by the police that going to Hong Kong would be “making trouble.” Some said they were monitored in the days leading up to the conference. [Source]
In the 2015 Human Freedom Index published by the Fraser Institute in Canada, Hong Kong topped the list of 152 countries that are deemed as the world’s most economically liberal regions, a ranking that Hong Kong has held since 1980. However, Thaddeus Hwong from York University warns that Hong Kong’s position on the index may slip if press freedom and the rule of law continue to be undermined.