The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion China crushes Hong Kong’s last defenders of freedom

Jimmy Lai leaves court after a bail hearing in Hong Kong in December 2020. (Chan Long Hei/Bloomberg News)
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As the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics approach, the host nation continues to display its true colors. The latest evidence that the world will gather in China under the auspices of a ruthless dictatorship comes from the former British colony of Hong Kong, restored to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. There, the communist regime has been busily stamping out freedom’s last vestiges.

On Monday, a judge sentenced publisher Jimmy Lai to 13 months in prison for inciting an unlawful assembly on June 4, 2020. His misdeed? Lighting a candle in commemoration of the pro-democracy demonstrators who died at the hands of the Chinese military in Tiananmen Square 31 years before. Mr. Lai said nothing as he made this gesture, though he did so in the presence of international media. The sentencing judge granted no mercy anyway: “His presence at that press conference was a deliberate act to rally support for and publicly spotlight the unauthorized assembly that followed,” she wrote. “He need not use words of incitement to intend to incite others.”

Mr. Lai was one of eight people sentenced in connection with the 2020 protest. That event sought to continue Hong Kong democrats’ annual custom of commemorating the Tiananmen massacre — one in which thousands regularly took part. What was new was the government’s oppressive ban on assemblies, imposed ostensibly to fight covid-19. “Let us not delude ourselves that this is all about covid-19 and that the criminalization of the vigil is only an exceptional measure at an exceptional time,” one of Mr. Lai’s co-defendants said in court. “What happened here is instead one step in the systemic erasure of history, both of the Tiananmen Massacre and Hong Kong’s own history of civic resistance.” Indeed, when June 4 came around this year, the Hong Kong government cracked down on demonstrations.

Admittedly, there’s nothing all that new about official repression against Mr. Lai. He was already serving 20 months for alleged offenses related to his role in Hong Kong’s massive 2019 protests, a popular reaction to the government’s continuing denial of full voting rights to the city’s people and Beijing’s attempts to ram a repressive legal reform through the city’s Legislative Council. (His new sentence will run concurrently.) Government authorities forced Mr. Lai’s newspaper, Apple Daily, to close in June after the police raided its offices and arrested top editors, citing the pugnaciously independent publication’s alleged violations of a new national security law. Mr. Lai himself still faces individual prosecution under that statute, with a possible maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

Unoriginal though China’s repression may be, Mr. Lai’s courage in the face of it astounds. “Let me suffer the punishment of this crime,” he wrote in a statement his lawyer read aloud to the court, “so I may share the burden and glory of those young men and women who shed their blood on June 4 to proclaim truth, justice and goodness.” The candle of defiance that Mr. Lai lit still illuminates Hong Kong’s cause, as it will long after the Olympic flame goes out.

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