Benny Tai, 54, Chan Kin-man, 59, and Chu Yiu-ming, 74, faced a busy courtroom day on Monday, November 19th, as chargers were presented over their involvement in the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. The trio pleaded “not guilty” to conspiracy to incite and commit public nuisance. Those are the charges they faced as leaders of the pro-democracy protests in the city controlled by mainland China. The combined offences carry a maximum penalty of 7 years jail time should they be found guilty. Al Jazeera reports that six more people make up the accused of being the chief perpetrators of the 79-day pro-democracy sit-in protest staged in 2014 in Hong Kong’s business district. According to Reuters, the trial drew many demonstrators in support of the nine defendants, sporting the symbolic yellow umbrellas and chanting, “I want universal suffrage.” Meanwhile, Tai, Chan and Chu, two professors and a retired pastor, dressed in black jackets in solidarity as the court proceedings commenced.
Criticism of the proceedings has come readily from a number of sources. Claudia Mo, a Hong Kong lawmaker, told Al Jazeera that the government was relying on “obsolete charges that have been done away with in places like Australia to maximize the charges and ensure that the defendants receive prison time…[ ] It is rather unsettling.” The defendants themselves protested the unfairness of the trial with Chan stating to Al Jazeera, “There is no record for us to look to… [ ] Documents on the Umbrella movement are really inconsistent. The court of appeals has said that if people are not violent, they should not receive jail time, but then these high-level rulings are ignored.” Meanwhile, Benny Tai said, “They want to deter public talk of civil disobedience, and therefore they will kill civil disobedience and any form of public action will be deterred.”
These trials come at a difficult time for Hong Kong and China’s relationship. In 1997 Hong Kong was handed back to China from Britain on the condition that it could carry on a “one country, two systems” model, thus allowing Hong Kong to largely retain its democratic system. However, mainland China has since sought to establish a stronger control over the city, inspiring continued counter-protests such as 2014 Umbrella movement and many more. Reuters reports that just recently the journalist, Victor Mallet, was banned from Hong Kong because he hosted an independence activist at the Foreign Correspondents Club.
The authority of the central government in Hong Kong resembles a slippery eel for Communist Party; the tighter it grips the harder it becomes to grasp. In some cases, it could be argued that hearing the protesters rather than convicting them may lead to a more constructive outcome. Even now the Washington Post is reporting that the judges are under pressure from Beijing to deliver harsh sentences as a deterrence against future protests. This is likely to have the opposite effect. If even a fraction of the students that Chan recently farewelled at the Chinese University of Hong Kong are moved by the cause of their professor, then the Chinese government will find these acts of dissent become increasingly more common.