China’s Crackdown on Hong Kong Tested in Trial of Pro-Democracy Politicians

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China’s Crackdown on Hong Kong Tested in Trial of Pro-Democracy Politicians

HONG KONG—Defense lawyer Lawrence Lau represented the first person charged under a new national-security law—a flag-bearing street protester—in July. This week, he found himself presenting his own defense after being charged under the same legislation.

Mr. Lau was among dozens of pro-democracy politicians accused of subverting the state, the biggest case brought so far amid China’s crackdown on democracy advocates in the city. After a four-day bail hearing ended late Thursday, all of them remained in jail.

Magistrate Victor So, handpicked by the city’s top local official to handle national-security cases, remanded 32 of the 47 defendants in custody without bail, pending trial later this year. Mr. So surprised some observers by agreeing to grant bail to the other 15, including Mr. Lau, but government prosecutors immediately lodged an appeal that prevented them from walking free.

The case has put a spotlight on the long-vaunted independence of the city’s judiciary, which has come under attack from Chinese state media and had its role in state security cases fettered by the law. The case is also widely viewed as a barometer of how far officials are willing to use the national-security law against political opponents as China cracks down on dissent after the biggest protests in half a century, which rocked Hong Kong in 2019.

Pro-democracy activists have cited the case as evidence the national-security law is being used to curtail the city’s pluralistic political system. As the bail hearing dragged on, some of the political groups that the accused were involved with were disbanded, further weakening a fragmented and downtrodden opposition movement.

“This is the biggest political trial in Hong Kong’s history,” said Chow Po-chung, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong’s department of government and public administration. Targeting the 47 pro-democracy politicians—almost the entire opposition leadership bloc—sent a warning to the Hong Kong people not to oppose the government, he said.

The city’s Department of Justice has said that the decision to prosecute was made without any political considerations.

The mass incarceration of opposition figures removes the bulk of leading faces of dissent from public view as Chinese leaders prepare for the country’s annual legislative meeting starting Friday. Changes to Hong Kong’s electoral system were on the agenda published Thursday.

Mr. Lau, a 53-year-old barrister, represented a generation of pro-democracy campaigners that emerged from the chaos of the social unrest in 2019.

He was elected as a neighborhood representative in a sweep of district council elections by pro-democracy candidates in November 2019, inflicting a heavy defeat on pro-Beijing parties. Social-media posts from the newspaper columnist and book author showed his office piled with books, some on freedom and democracy, along with his cats, Dworkin and Yinke, named after two scholars he admires.

Last July, Mr. Lau was among dozens who took part in unofficial primaries to select the most popular candidates that the pan-democratic camp would put forward as candidates for the city’s legislature. It was part of a strategy to win a majority in Hong Kong’s lawmaking body, known as the Legislative Council.

Police later accused many of those involved of subversion. They cited a goal of organizers to use measures spelled out in Hong Kong’s mini constitution to use the bloc’s power to vote against government proposals and ultimately force the city’s top official to step down. The plan was a plot to paralyze the city’s government, prosecutors allege.

In January, Mr. Lau was among 53 people arrested in dawn raids by police. He was charged last Sunday, before appearing in court Monday in floral shoes and a jacket with a pocket square.

Hong Kong police arrested more than 50 pro-democracy figures for allegedly plotting to destabilize the government. WSJ’s Andrew Dowell reports on how the biggest crackdown since the national-security law was imposed chips away at the city’s rule of law and global status. Photo: AP/TVB (Originally published Jan. 6, 2021)

Families complained that the defendants had no chance to change or wash for the first three days of the hearings. As hearings went on, those charged made emotional appeals for bail.

Crowds began lining up outside the courthouse under gloomy skies and drizzling rain before dawn, expressing solidarity with the accused and at times chanting protest slogans.

Under the new national-security law, the criteria for bail is higher than the norm, meaning anyone charged could spend months in detention before even going to trial: They are due in court again in late May.

Even so, the magistrate ruled in favor of granting bail to 15 of the accused under stringent conditions, including bans on taking part in elections and any communications with foreign politicians or officials. After the Department of Justice said it was appealing the decision, he sent the group back into custody pending a higher court review.

As the defendants left the courtroom, some shouted: “Political prisoners are not guilty! Hong Kongers never die!” Outside, family members and friends cried and screamed, one collapsing outside the rooms where the trial was relayed.

“This is a dark, dark day for the city,” said one supporter, Jane Wong, who is friends with some of the activists. “We won’t forget this.”

Mr. Lau, the lawyer, was prepared. Ahead of reporting to the police station on Sunday, he posted a selfie on Instagram, saying he wanted to say goodbye to his supporters, though he hoped he would see them later.

“From this afternoon, I may not see blue skies again,” Mr. Lau wrote in the post, citing the work of a Turkish journalist who smuggled parts of his memoirs of life in imprisonment on pieces of paper. “I may never see the world again!”

His case will be heard in the next 48 hours.

Write to Natasha Khan at natasha.khan@wsj.com and Wenxin Fan at Wenxin.Fan@wsj.com

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