HONG KONG — The largest national security case to be heard in Hong Kong since Beijing imposed strict new controls on the territory will begin on Monday, with 16 prominent pro-democracy advocates standing trial for carrying out an unofficial primary before legislative elections in 2020.
The case underscores Beijing’s determination to snuff out critical voices in the once-freewheeling city, with every prominent and many moderate opposition voices in Hong Kong now either in jail or in exile.
“This is not only a trial of the 47 pro-democracy or opposition leaders in Hong Kong. It is a trial of all citizens who have been supporting the democratic movement for decades,” said Eric Yan-Ho Lai, a nonresident fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law.
Following months-long pro-democracy protests that roiled Hong Kong throughout 2019, Beijing in 2020 imposed a new national security law on the territory, which was supposed to enjoy a level of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework.
The law, drafted by Beijing and passed without any consultation in Hong Kong, criminalizes broadly worded crimes such as “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces.” It has transformed Hong Kong and its institutions, including schools, the media, the legislature and the courts, chipping away at the territory’s promised autonomy, which was meant to be preserved until 2047.
After the law was introduced, Tai, a legal scholar and activist who launched protests in 2014 that spiraled into a 79-day occupation of city streets, organized an unofficial primary election for activists and politicians to run in legislative council elections. He hoped to secure a majority in the legislature for pro-democracy candidates.
More than 600,000 voters took part in the citywide primary, but then the executive decided to delay the legislative election, citing issues related to covid-19.
The Beijing-backed executive sharply criticized the group’s intention to push in the legislature for greater democratic freedoms for the people of Hong Kong through illegitimate means, saying that this could have already constituted a violation of the security law.
Widespread arrests soon followed. Wong and Tai were arrested, as were social activist and former reporter Gwyneth Ho and former opposition lawmaker “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung.
Many have been held in custody for the last two years, with judges expressing concern they might endanger national security if granted bail.
The 16 of the group who have indicated they will fight the charges by pleading not guilty are due in court on Monday, although they can still change their minds as they weigh potential sentences.
The trial will be run by three judges handpicked by the government to try national security cases, departing from the tradition under Hong Kong’s common law system, of trial by jury. The judges cited the “involvement of foreign elements” as grounds to waive a jury trial.
Those who have already said they will plead guilty, including Wong and Tai, will receive their sentence after the trial is completed.
Under a reformed legal aid system, which lowers the quotas of cases each lawyer can take, five defendants were denied lawyers of their choice and forced to either go with assigned lawyers or hire a lawyer out of their own pocket.
Lai said these measures have limited the defendants’ “rights to a fair trial and due process.”
“This could be understood that the government is creating incentives surrounding defendants to plead guilty, even though it is fully upon their own choice to plead guilty or not,” Lai said.
In a letter posted on social media in late January, Wong thanked those who wrote to him in prison. “I am grateful that I can still feel that I am not alone in facing the sentencing this year,” Wong wrote.
As of Jan. 20, 243 people had been arrested over suspected acts that endangered national security, according to official figures.
An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of Eric Yan-Ho Lai as Eric Yan-o Lai. The article has been corrected.