‘Landmark’ Trial in Hong Kong Deals Heavy Blow to Pro-Democracy Movement

A mass trial got underway this week in Hong Kong, with 47 academics, activists, and former politicians facing charges of conspiracy to commit subversion. Their alleged crime: involvement in an unofficial primary vote to select candidates for Hong Kong’s 2020 Legislative Council elections. The trial shows the power of the National Security Law (NSL) — passed in 2020 after anti-government protests swept through the city a year earlier — to obliterate what remains of besieged pro-democracy forces.

Guilty verdicts, harsh punishment expected

Thirty-one of the accused are pleading guilty, including some of the movement’s highest-profile members: student activist Joshua Wong, law professor Benny Tai, and former lawmaker Claudia Mo. Observers attributethese pleas, at least in part, to mounting financial pressures (some have been held without bail for two years) and a legal system stacked heavily against them. The NSL resembles mainland China’s legal system in that defendants accused of political crimes face a presumption of guilt and are likely to receive long sentences. Eighteen of them could face life in prison after the trial concludes in May.

More Hong Kongers voting with their feet

The Hong Kong government is trying to resuscitate not only the city’s tourism industry — for example, by offering 500,000 free airline tickets to lure back travellers — but also rehabilitate its image as a global business hub. After three years of stringent COVID-19 measures and an increasingly oppressive political atmosphere, more and more professionals and young people are headed for the exits. Many of them are coming to the U.S. and Canada. Since 2019, the number of temporary residents from Hong Kong living in Canada has “skyrocketed” to historically high levels, and could continue to climb. This week, Ottawa extended by two years its open work permit program for Hong Kongers. The government also eased eligibility requirements for the program. The prosecution of the city’s pro-democracy activists could encourage more Hong Kong residents to take advantage of such opportunities.