On April 9, a Hong Kong district court convicted nine core leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement of conspiracy to commit public nuisance. On April 24, the court handed down prison sentences of up to 16 months.
To some in Hong Kong, this batch of prosecutions marks the end of the city’s largest demonstration of civil disobedience. Others see a further chapter opening in Hong Kong’s struggle for freedom and democracy, as new attacks emerge on promises of political autonomy guaranteed in the 1986 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.
Here’s a look at the political fallout since the Umbrella Movement.
1. Who are the “Occupy Nine?”
The accused “Occupy Nine” include the trio who started the “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” movement to demand genuine universal suffrage in choosing Hong Kong’s chief executive: Hong Kong University law professor Benny Yiu-ting Tai, Chinese University sociology professor Kin-man Chan and the Rev. Yiu-ming Chu.
Six others — lawmakers Tanya Chan and Ka-chun Shiu, political leaders Raphael Wong and Wing-tat Lee, and student leaders Sau-yin Cheung and Yiu-wa Chung — joined the center stage when “Occupy Central” morphed into the “Umbrella Movement.”
Foreign correspondents came up with the name when protesters opened yellow umbrellas to shield themselves from police tear gas and pepper spray on Sept. 28, 2014. Protesters then occupied major thoroughfares in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok for 79 days, until early December 2014.
Citing “serious” obstruction and the “extensive” duration of the protests, the government charged members of the group with various crimes: conspiracy to cause public nuisance; inciting others to cause public nuisance; and inciting people to incite others to cause public nuisance.
The original trio received 16-month jail terms. Tai and Chan were imprisoned immediately, but Chu’s sentence was suspended for two years, in recognition of his age and his lifetime of public service. Legislator Shiu and activist Wong received eight-month terms and Tanya Chan’s case is on hold, pending treatment for a brain tumor. The others received suspended sentences or community service.
2. The aftermath of the Umbrella Movement
Foreign diplomats and NGOs like Amnesty International voiced concerns related to Hong Kong’s freedoms of speech and assembly. In addition to the “Occupy Nine” sentencing, there have been other examples of measures to erode the rule of law in Hong Kong.
In early April, the Hong Kong government proposed to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance to allow extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China. Critics are worried: China’s Communist Party is above the law, and those arrested in China are often tortured and forced to make televised confessions.
This happened to Wing-kee Lam, one of five Hong Kong booksellers Chinese officials seized in 2015 for selling gossipy books about China’s leaders. In 2016, mainland security officers escorted him back to Hong Kong to retrieve subscribers’ data — and he then refused to return to China. Fearing the pending extradition law, Lam fled to Taiwan on April 26.
In September 2018, the Hong Kong government rolled back a provision of Hong Kong’s Basic Law by ceding to mainland jurisdiction parts of the West Kowloon high-speed railway terminal. Mainland officials later arrested a Hong Kong permanent resident who was in the mainland area of the station, alleging he was involved in a property case in Shenzhen, China.
Last fall, the Hong Kong government banned the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party. Chief Executive Carrie Lam submitted a report to Beijing when Chinese officials requested details. Many in Hong Kong criticized this move as contradicting the Basic Law promise that Hong Kong would run its own internal affairs. The Hong Kong government also refused to renew the visa of Financial Times reporter Victor Millet, who had hosted a talk by the party’s founder Andy Chan at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club.
The government also disqualified six pro-democracy legislators who had won seats in the 2016 elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo). They were accused of improper language in their oath of office. To make sure that local judges had no choice but to grant the government’s disqualification requests, Beijing issued a binding interpretation of the Basic Law.
With the disqualifications, LegCo has become a rubber stamp for Lam, the chief executive, to push through any budget requests or legal measures, including the extradition amendments.
3. Hong Kong’s struggle for autonomy will likely continue
Beijing and Hong Kong officials may have hoped to deter further activism with the above measures. Yet the sentencing of university professors and young activists may be backfiring. In the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement, going to jail has become a badge of honor.
When jailed leaders called for a mass demonstration against the extradition law on April 28, 130,000 protesters turned out.
In response to the charges that the “Occupy Nine” incited nuisance, supporters declared on social media and wore T-shirts with the hashtag “I was not incited.” A Chinese University study estimates that 1.2 million people out of a population of 7.2 million participated at various times and in various forms in these protests — it would be a high order to incite that many people. Indeed, journalism scholars Francis L.F. Lee and Joseph M. Chan report that it was the police tear gas that motivated nearly 60 percent of those they surveyed to join the movement.
It’s likely the convicted leaders and their supporters won’t simply give up. In their view, the promise of “one country, two systems” has become “one country, 1.5 systems.” They are fighting for their own future.
The government may have inadvertently forged unity among opposition leaders by putting them in the same courtroom docks. Traditional democrats, the Occupy Central trio, student leaders and radical activists had bitter disagreements during and after the Occupy campaign. Now that they share the same experience of mass arrests, court trials and imprisonment, they have acquired a new sense of common cause.
Victoria Tin-bor Hui, associate professor in political science at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of “Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement: The Protests and Beyond.” She is a native of Hong Kong and maintains a blog on the movement.