Subversion is a systematic attempt to undermine or overthrow a government or political system by persons secretly working from within, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary. This was the single charge given to 47 pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong on February 28, 2021— an example of how China’s National Security Law is implemented. Many of those charged are young activists, including Lester Shum, Joshua Wong, and Owen Chow.
Hong Kong police reported that of the 47 activists charged, 39 were men and 8 were women, all between the ages of 23 and 64. Those ordered to report to the police were accused of assisting an unofficial “primary” election last June to pick opposition candidates for legislative elections in September. The elections were postponed, and Chinese and Hong Kong officials now claim it was an attempt to overthrow the government.
The activists are facing charges of conspiring to commit subversion in the widest application of the National Security Law to date. They are likely to be held for months before their trials begin because the security law sets a higher standard for bail.
“It is not just the 47 defendants who are just facing charges here today, but also the Hong Kong judicial system and the spirit of rule of law,” said Alan Leong, a lawyer and politician representing four of the defendants.
What is the National Security Law and how has it been used?
The National Security Law, introduced in June 2020, has made it easier for China to arrest and detain protesters. Cases can now be taken over by mainland authorities and trials can be held secretly and without a jury. Violating this law could now result in lifetime prison sentences, which is a possible outcome for the 47 pro-democracy activists.
The law has reduced Hong Kong’s autonomy and made it easier to punish demonstrators. People who are accused of conspiring to promote “hatred” of the Chinese government or the Hong Kong authorities may be charged with committing a crime. Mainland security personnel can now freely and legally operate in Hong Kong, making it easier to detect any activities or protests directed at the Chinese government.
So far, over 230 people have been arrested under the National Security Law, including Chinese government critic and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who was denied bail and is currently detained while awaiting his trial. After the law was introduced, several pro-democracy groups went underground, fearing for their freedom and safety.
Protests and increasing police brutality in Hong Kong
Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, when it was returned to China under the “one country, two systems” principle. This guaranteed that Hong Kong would enjoy certain freedoms that mainland China did not have, such as freedom of assembly and speech, an independent legal system, and some democratic systems.
However, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, often viewed as acting according to the interests of Beijing, introduced a bill in April 2019 that would have allowed criminal suspects to be extradited to China. At a demonstration against the bill on June 12, 2019, police clashed with protesters, firing tear gas and rubber bullets at the crowd.
A wave of demonstrations continued through the summer and into the autumn, with police intervention growing increasingly violent, including the use of water cannons on protesters. The bill was eventually dropped by Lam in September 2019, but on October 1, while China was celebrating 70 years of Communist Party rule, an 18-year-old was shot in the chest with a live bullet by police during protests in Hong Kong.
In November 2019, a police officer shot one protester at close range when activists were trying to set up a roadblock. Later that month, a standoff occurred between police and students who were barricaded on the campus of Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University. Some of the detained protesters said they were beaten or tortured after being arrested.
Young pro-democracy activists continue the fight for freedom
More than 100 police officers were deployed outside the West Kowloon Magistrates Court, facing off against hundreds of protesters chanting pro-democracy slogans and holding banners in support of those who were arrested. The protest was the largest seen in Hong Kong for several months.
Protesters chanted the banned slogan, “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our time!” and carried signs demanding the release of those who were taken into custody.
The brief gathering of supporters, who held bright yellow signs reading “Release all political prisoners,” was similar to the protests against the proposed extradition bill in the later months of 2019. Many activists have promised to continue the fight for freedom and democracy, even though they could face arrest and imprisonment under the National Security Law.
Kristine, 20, told a reporter from The Guardian that she had been there since 5:00 a.m. “We have been taking shifts since yesterday. Our friend is among those charged. I want to tell my friend that we are willing to sacrifice ourselves for our city.”
There are many others who share Kristine’s determination to fight for freedom at any cost. But the increasing crackdown on democracy, along with the rise of violent policing in Hong Kong, means the future will test the determination of pro-democracy activists.
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A version of this article was originally published on the Students For Liberty website in April 2021.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.