The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democracy is on trial in Hong Kong — and China is fixing the verdict

Outside a court in Hong Kong on March 4, a supporter of arrested pro-democracy advocates gestures to signify "Five demands — not one less," in recognition of advocates’ five demands of Chinese officials. (Vincent Yu/AP)

DEMOCRACY IS on trial in Hong Kong. Last week, authorities detained and charged 47 people — virtually the entire leadership of the opposition — with “conspiracy to commit subversion,” an offense that can be punished with life in prison under a new national security law. Their offense: organizing and conducting a primary election. After marathon bail hearings, during which eight defendants deprived of sleep and food were hospitalized, all but four remained jailed pending trials that could drag on for years.

To be clear, there was nothing illicit about the primary election when it was held in July. The purpose was to choose candidates for local legislative elections that had been scheduled for September under Hong Kong’s limited democracy. But authorities, fearing the opposition would win a majority, called off the election. Now, the attempt by the opposition to increase its strength by winning votes is being cast as a criminal offense.

The Chinese regime of Xi Jinping is meanwhile moving to ensure that Hong Kong’s democrats never have the chance to practice democracy again. At a meeting of the National People’s Congress in Beijing, authorities have introduced legislation that, a senior official said, would close the “clear loopholes and deficiencies” that had allowed opposition figures to be elected to the legislature and other bodies in the past. In the future, all candidates will be screened by a Beijing-controlled committee that will ban anyone deemed to be “anti-China.”

Taken together, the jailing of the opposition leadership and the new election law would completely extinguish the measure of political freedom that distinguished Hong Kong from mainland China — a system Beijing committed by treaty to preserve until at least 2047 when it regained control over Hong Kong from Britain. The once-independent court system is being compromised, too, as last week’s bail hearings showed. Meanwhile, the publisher of the most independent Hong Kong newspaper has been jailed on national security charges, ensuring self-censorship by the rest of the media.

Every major figure of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, from 24-year-old Joshua Wong to 82-year-old Martin Lee, now faces potentially lengthy prison terms in the most consequential political crackdown in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. The Hong Kong repression has been more gradual and less bloody; there have been no tanks rolling through the streets. But the effect has been much the same: the crushing of a movement that could have brought peaceful democratic change to China.

The United States, Britain and some other democratic countries have responded to the events in Hong Kong with condemnations and limited sanctions; more usefully, Britain has opened its doors to what could be hundreds of thousands of refugees from its former colony. Last week, the Biden administration acknowledged that the international response to the Xi regime’s abuses in Hong Kong and against Muslims in Xinjiang province had been unsatisfactory; the State Department said it was “galvanizing collective action.” It will take creative diplomacy to muster an adequately robust international response to a regime that regards itself as immune to pressure.

Read more:

Nathan Law: The world must do more to fight China’s crackdown in Hong Kong

Josh Rogin: How covid hastened the decline and fall of the U.S.-China relationship

The Post’s View: The jailing of three opposition leaders is another milestone in China’s crushing of Hong Kong

The Post’s View: China has just broken its solemn promise to Hong Kong

Joshua Wong: China is targeting and arresting Hong Kong dissidents. I could be next.