Hong Kong: Democracy movement stunned by raft of authoritarian measures

Thirteen activists sentenced to 13-months in prison.

Jailing of 13 young democracy activists for thirteen months raises the bar on government repression – coordinated fight back is needed!

Dikang, Socialist Action

Hong Kong is reeling under a raft of undemocratic measures from Carrie Lam’s new government. A new milestone in repression was reached when thirteen young activists were jailed for 13 months on Tuesday, 15 August (one, who pleaded ‘guilty’, received an eight-month sentence). Among the thirteen is Raphael Wong Ho-ming, the vice chairman of the League of Social Democrats (LSD). Faning Yim, 25, a former member of Socialist Action (CWI in Hong Kong) is another. The youngest of these political prisoners is just 21 years old.

The thirteen were arrested after a protest in 2014 against land grabs in which a section of the demonstration forced open the doors to the legislature (Legco), damaging a door and causing light injuries to a security guard. Raphael Wong has been jailed despite clear evidence that he tried to prevent protesters entering the Legco building. It is not just the savagery of these sentences that has sent shock waves through the ranks of the city’s democracy movement, but the obvious manipulation of the trial process by the government.

The accused were all sentenced to community service at a trial last year, sentences they have already served. The government appealed these “light” sentences and the appeal judges have effectively upgraded the charges from “unlawful assembly” to “riot”, completely backing up the government’s hard line. The ruling goes against the principle of double jeopardy – not being tried twice for the same crime.

Thirteen activists sentenced to 13-months in prison.

Xi Jinping’s law

This case exposes the courts in Hong Kong and so-called ‘rule of law’ as a sham. The courts are not independent, but have become an arm of the Chinese dictatorship and its authoritarian agenda for Hong Kong. As Sally Tang Mei-Ching of Socialist Action said, addressing a mass protest in support of the jailed campaigners, “Do we have rule of law? No, we only have Xi Jinping’s law!”

Another imminent trial of former student leaders, whose protest in 2014 triggered the mass 79-day Umbrella Revolution, is likely to follow the same pattern with previous “light” sentences overturned in favour of jail terms. The three include well-known youth activist Joshua Wong, 20, and former legislator Nathan Law, 24, who along with three others was recently expelled from the Legco in yet another highly politicised trial.

Read also: Film review: Joshua – Teenager vs. Superpower ➵


Those sentenced to more than three months in prison will be banned from standing in elections for five years. This is clearly one of the aims of the government which initiated all these court actions. For Law, the expelled legislator, this would bar him from contesting an upcoming by-election to reclaim his seat.

“Shock and awe” repression

Carrie Lam’s government was installed on July 1. She lacks any popular mandate having been ‘elected’ by just 777 elite voters under the authoritarian fake election system. She has confirmed the warnings, made here on chinaworker.info and elsewhere, that her government would be “CY 2.0”, by continuing the hardline repressive policies of her predecessor, CY Leung.

Read also: Hong Kong’s election – Ruled by the 0.02 percent ➵


In fact, Lam’s rule is more repressive than CY’s. In just six weeks there has been a succession of unprecedented attacks on democratic rights that even CY couldn’t match. It is clearly a calculated plan by the government to squeeze the democratic opposition in a ‘pincer movement’ of synchronised attacks. The timeline of these attacks is clearly designed to achieve a “shock and awe” effect to demoralise the opposition:

July 1: Carrie Lam installed as Chief Executive on 20th anniversary of the handover to China. Visiting Chinese leader Xi Jinping makes bloodcurdling speech warning Hong Kong not to cross “red line” in challenging China’s control.

July 14: The disqualification of four radical lawmakers (making six in total) on bogus “oath-taking” offences.

July 25: The government’s high-speed train proposal confirms that mainland security personnel will legally operate in Hong Kong for the first time.

August 1: Lam’s intention to revive the discredited school brainwashing plan (so-called national education) is confirmed by the appointment of Christine Choi Yuk-lin as undersecretary for education. Choi is a hardline pro-Beijing ideologue who has long campaigned for this policy.

August 15: The unprecedented retrial of the 13 leads to savage jail sentences, setting the stage for more harsh jail sentences as a weapon against mass protests and a method of “culling” radical pro-democracy candidates in future elections.

August 17: The possibility of a similar outcome when the judgement on three former student leaders is delivered.

Combined these measures represent a massive, coordinated, and unprecedented attack on democratic rights in Hong Kong. It’s clear the government, mentored by its overlords in the Chinese regime, is following a strategy, a roadmap even, to push back and disassemble the democracy struggle which has been a thorn in Beijing’s side for many years.

Every new attack from Lam’s government or its politically-allied judiciary is applauded by the establishment parties, reaching saturation point on social media (which is not hard to manipulate with unlimited financial resources) as well as small but well publicised protests against the victims, organised by the pro-government parties to give the illusion of public support for the government’s agenda.

Disqualified lawmakers.

Opposition paralysis

Unfortunately, the opposition and the dominant pan-democratic parties (bourgeois liberals) have no counter-strategy to meet this attack and defend democratic rights. On the contrary, these leaders have in many cases been lured into the trap of seeing Lam as a more “reasonable” and “pragmatic” leader than CY Leung, and believe they can strike deals with her government. This disastrously false reading of the situation leads them into passivity and to shrink from sanctioning a mass fight back against the attacks. In words they condemn the repression, but there is no action apart from limited almost ritual protests.

The government has drawn lessons from the mighty Umbrella Movement which shook the ruling elite in China and Hong Kong. They have largely ‘outsourced’ repression to the British-schooled judicial system. This is because illusions in the ‘independence’ of the courts and ‘rule of law’ still exist among the masses – and not least among the pan-democratic tops (many of whom are lawyers). These illusions need to be challenged head-on using the latest blatantly political judgements as proof and explaining the real role of the courts as an arm of the state which defends the rich and powerful.

Today, in an unprecedented development for Hong Kong, the courts are being used to strike strategic blows against the democracy movement, especially its younger activists and more radical layer, including many who would be candidates in coming elections for the semi-democratic legislature.

Also, as shown in the case of the six expelled lawmakers, the courts are being used to bankrupt and financially ruin anti-government organisations and individuals. The courts not only evicted the legislators and in the process tore up 180,000 democratically cast ballots, but also imposed HK$18 million in costs against them (including the demand to repay nine months of legislative salaries and staff expenses).

The use of the law courts in this way to repress and financially paralyse the opposition is a hallmark of the ‘Singapore model’ of one-party dictatorship, but it marks a sharp departure from the softer form of authoritarian rule (pseudo democracy) of Hong Kong’s past.

Demonstration outside Government Headquarters in solidarity with the 13 political prisoners.

Beijing has a plan

It is clear  the attacks are coordinated as part of a grand plan directed by Beijing. The political trials and increasingly harsh sentences are linked to the Legco purge and by-elections, with the aim of eliminating at least some of the six unseated legislators from standing for re-election. Any other result would be a big blow to the government’s anti-democratic agenda and is therefore extremely unlikely. The government has not gone to all this trouble to exclude its opponents only to allow itself to be overturned through elections – such thinking is too “democratic” for the ruling group.

Read also: Hong Kong – For a mass campaign of resistance against the Legco coup ➵

The purge is linked to ramming through controversial authoritarian measures like the national education plan and high-speed train ‘co-location’ plan (a station terminal with both mainland and Hong Kong security personnel), because the pro-government camp now have a ‘super majority’ and can rewrite the Legco rule book to abolish democratic features like the filibuster, which has been used to frustrate the government’s agenda in the past.

The high-speed train issue is presented as a “time saving” measure, allowing passengers to check-in through both sets of immigration and customs at the same time, but in reality this is political manoeuvre to accustom Hong Kongers to the presence of mainland police implementing mainland laws (within the station area and on the train) for the first time in Hong Kong’s history.

It means that the train even as it passes through Hong Kong is under Chinese laws, with political criticism of the regime or banned topics like the June 4 massacre theoretically outlawed. The government has so far not confirmed if for example banned internet sites like Facebook will also be blocked on the train. Socialist Action is calling for a mass boycott campaign against the train, which also looks set to be a colossal financial white elephant.

How to fight back?

The current serious situation in Hong Kong cries out for a clear, organised fight back. There is massive anger and discontent in society, as well as fear over the tightening grip of authoritarian rule. Carrie Lam’s popularity has sunk sharply from its low starting point. But unfortunately there is a crisis of leadership for the democracy struggle.

Most pan-democratic parties are still “fighting the last war”, whereas the regime has moved on and developed new legal weapons and tactics to attack, split and isolate sections of the opposition. In a city that has been rocked by massive protests in recent years – over half a million on the streets in July 2013 and up to 1.2 million during the Umbrella mass protests – it is a striking fact that to date no major demonstration has been called to resist the Legco purge, the train, or the political repression in general.

In the South China Morning Post (16 August) political commentator Andrew Fung accurately describes, “a general sense of frustration and bewilderment, as well as a lack of direction, among strong supporters of the opposition parties.”

But Fung is really wide of the mark when he adds, “The people have not ‘risen up’ as expected. Only a small number joined recent demonstrations, and very few have showed up outside the courts or police stations to support radicals facing trial and Occupy leaders facing prosecution.”

The reality is that the pan-democratic tops, still clinging to the idea of “reconciliation” with Lam’s government, have imposed a de facto embargo on mass protests. There is little doubt that in the current tumultuous atmosphere many thousands would respond if a serious call were issued to come out and protest. But after the experiences of recent years people are also aware that “one more demonstration”, while it’s a start, is not enough to stop the government’s attacks. A more comprehensive strategy is needed to rebuild and politically retool the democracy struggle.

Sally Tang Mei-Ching addresses protest at Legco on August 16.

Make ‘928’ a day of mass struggle

Speaking to over 2,000 mostly young protesters on the night of August 16, at a rally in solidarity with the thirteen, Sally Tang Mei-Ching of Socialist Action made a number of points to address this lack of a fighting strategy. Pointing to the very good turnout for a protest called at just 24 hours notice she said, “What we need is to mobilise more at the weekend, more people for a demo, outside the prisons!”

“These are not single issues! They are a series of attacks on democracy! We can’t fight separately!

“Socialist Action proposes to have a day of mass struggle on ‘928’ [September 28] – to mobilise everyone on the 3rd anniversary of the Umbrella Revolution – we have one month to do this, to resist the repression, we urge everyone and all groups to discuss this.”

Sally received a very good response, with several people approaching her afterwards to express agreement with what she raised. If the movement prepares now, ‘928’ could be turned into a huge anti-government protest, with a central demonstration, mass leafleting of subway stations, and – if support can be built – strikes by students and school students in solidarity with the political prisoners and to defend democracy. This could mark a turning point that reignites the mass struggle in Hong Kong around the following demands:

  • Free the thirteen! Drop the charges against political protesters!
  • Oppose the Legco purge!
  • Oppose repression and Xi Jinping law!
  • Boycott the high-speed railway. Mainland police and security out of Hong Kong!
  • Defend democratic rights, down with the unelected government! For full and immediate democracy, no compromise!
  • Fight Carrie Lam’s authoritarian pro-billionaire agenda. Tax the rich and build cheap public housing for the masses. For a democratically elected government of working people and the poor to break with billionaire rule!
  • For a united struggle of the masses in China and Hong Kong to defeat the ‘CCP’ dictatorship!