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Tool for suppressing dissent


WORLD Radio - Tool for suppressing dissent

Hong Kong’s National Security Law suppresses those who oppose the Chinese Communist Party

Nathan Law, now in exile in the UK, speaks at a rally in London, England June 12, 2021. Getty Images/Photo by Laurel Chor

MARY REICHARD, HOST: Up next: Beijing continues to crack down on dissent in Hong Kong.

Last week marked 35 years since the pro-democracy protests that led to the massacre at Tiananmen Square. Those protests ended with the killing of hundreds of people when the government sent in armed troops.

LINDSAY MAST, HOST: Since then, China has expanded its efforts to quell dissent in nearby territories including Hong Kong.

Pro-democracy rallies have replaced commemorations of the 1989 massacre. And in recent years police stopped anyone who appeared to raise awareness of the event.

REICHARD: Here now is World Reporter Josh Schumacher on what the democracy supporters now face

JOSH SCHUMACHER: The pro-Beijing government in Hong Kong passed the National Security Law in 2020. The law officially criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and colluding with a foreign government.

Activists and governments abroad have criticized it as a tool for Beijing to use in suppressing dissent.

U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken earlier this year said he spoke with Chinese leaders about their encroachment on Hong Kong:

TONY BLINKEN: I also raised concerns about the erosion of Hong Kong's autonomy and democratic institutions.

Before about two weeks ago, prosecutors in Hong Kong had brought roughly 70 people to trial under the law with a 100% conviction rate.

But then late last month, three judges in Hong Kong acquitted two defendants charged with violating the law. They were part of a larger group, known as the Hong Kong 47, who set up an unofficial primary election in 2020. Thirty-one of the defendants accepted plea deals rather than face trial. Fourteen others who did go to trial were found guilty.

But activists living abroad say the ruling benefits China more than everyday citizens of Hong Kong.

NATHAN LAW: The verdict shows that as long as the government is in charge, the court serves the interests of the Chinese Communist party.

Nathan Law ran in the Hong Kong 47’s unofficial primary election in 2020. He said the strategy the pro-democracy activists used is a normal maneuver in democracies around the world.

These activists organized the unofficial primary election in an attempt to gain a majority on the Hong Kong Legislative Council and veto the territory’s budget. That way they could force the Chinese government to come to the negotiating table and address their interests.

LAW: But in Hong Kong, it turns out to be a subversive action.

So if it’s a subversive action, why would the Beijing-appointed judges acquit people who participated in this plan?

LAW: Those two got acquitted because they managed to convince the court that they didn't know about the plan in full, and they didn't really agree with the most important part, which is whether they would veto the government's budget in order to negotiate with the government.

But on a deeper level Law says the real reason for the acquittal may have been more about appearances.

LAW: I think it is a play by the authority trying to show that, oh, actually, there's a possibility that you can be acquitted under the National Security Law. Because before that, the court remained 100% conviction rate in the national consecutive law cases, which is being criticized heavily.

Even so, the court’s rulings haven’t inspired hope among those in Hong Kong.

Kennedy Wong is a researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Hong Kong Democracy Council.

KENNEDY WONG: For domestic Hong Kong people, the 47 cases actually is sending a chilling effect.

Wong says thousands of people participated in the primary election aside from the 47 activists who faced charges. And it remains unclear whether the Chinese government will prosecute any of them. Some have stayed in Hong Kong, but others have fled, like Nathan Law. He is currently living in the United Kingdom and says he has a bounty $140,00 U.S. dollars on his head for whoever would turn him in to Chinese authorities.

LAW: If I were to go back to Hong Kong now, I’d probably spend that case in prison.

Facing those consequences isn’t easy. And Nathan Law sees something to admire in the activists who chose to face them head-on:

LAW: Most of the people who dare to plead not guilty understood the risk. But they decided to do so because some of them also believed that giving a historical remarks, that providing another perspective of the primary election that challenged the ridicule of the government was also really important.

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Josh Schumacher.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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