© Reuters. General view of Stanley Prison, Hong Kong, China, December 6, 2021. Image taken on December 6, 2021. REUTERS / Tyrone Siu
By James Pomfret
HONG KONG (Reuters) – For many Hong Kong Democrats, this year’s parliamentary elections were supposed to be a turning point for the movement in the face of what they saw as China’s growing encroachment on Hong Kong’s way of life.
Democrats thought they would win a majority that would give them a strong say in the future of the former British colony.
But instead of holding rallies for the upcoming election, many are now in custody awaiting trial, living a daily prison routine of sleeping, exercising, eating and studying, with two pens and six books a month at their disposal. Others fled the territory.
“It all happened so fast,” said Sunny Cheung, 25, an asylum seeker in the United States to avoid prosecution. “A year later, there are almost no real Democrats. They are either in prison or in exile.”
“That’s why we have to stick to our principles and not forget our history, especially when many leading Democrats sacrificed their freedom and are now behind bars.”
Reuters spoke to six Democrats, some in prison, others in exile or on bail, ahead of Sunday’s election. Voting was scheduled for September 2020, but was postponed due to COVID-19.
In February, police accused 47 Hong Kong pro-democracy activists of conspiracy to subvert because of their role in unofficial “primary elections” after Beijing introduced the city’s national security law last year.
Shortly after his arrest, China’s parliament announced a fundamental change in the electoral environment, cutting the number of directly elected seats from half to about a quarter, while an election committee with many pro-Beijing officials will select more than a third of the legislature.
A new vetting body has also been set up by Chinese order, headed by senior Hong Kong officials to screen potential candidates to ensure only “patriots” are running, according to government statements.
Since then, the state prosecutor’s office has been given more time by courts to prepare its case, while most of those arrested remain in six prisons across Hong Kong until the start of the trial.
In late November, Judge Peter Law adjourned the case until March, in part to allow more time to translate nearly 10,000 pages of documentary evidence presented by the prosecution.
Three Democrat lawyers, speaking anonymously in an effort to protect their clients, told Reuters that the prosecution had not yet provided a detailed summary of its allegations, making it difficult to provide legal advice, deviating from standard criminal proceedings. The reason for this delay is not publicly stated.
The Hong Kong Office of Constitutional Affairs and the Ministry of Justice did not answer questions from Reuters.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said the election is now “much more representative with more balanced participation” and that she would choose those “who are patriotic to run the city”.
The 33 Democrats who are now behind bars will not reappear in court until March, with no indication of when their trial will begin.
Hong Kong’s largest men’s prison, Stanley, houses senior Democrats who played a role in the primary, including Benny Tai, 57, and Leung Kwok-hung, 65. Joshua Wong, 25, is serving a prison sentence on another island.
Some opted for solitary confinement, others were integrated into larger groups of prisoners.
Prisoners such as Claudia Mo, 64, and Tiffany Yuen, 28, who also ran in the primary elections, are being held in a separate prison in the New Territories. Two people familiar with the situation said Yuen was put in solitary confinement in September after authorities described riots in prison.
Democrats in Hong Kong jail https://graphics.reuters.com/HONGKONG-ELECTION/DEMOCRATS/byvrjqdrbve/HK-Prison_AB.jpg
The Correctional Services Department told Reuters that while it declined to comment on the individual case, “it has the power to impose separate detention as punishment for persons in custody who have committed offenses against prison discipline.”
Closed Democrats describe the daily routine of sleeping, exercising, eating and learning.
After the reveille just after dawn, an hour is allowed for exercise and showering. Inmates can run or play sports, including football and basketball with shared brown shoes taken out of their wheelchairs, under the care of prison officials.
For detainees, but not convicted on any charges, two visitors per day are allowed, as well as food deliveries. Some began writing essays, books, and plays with their two-pen ratio, to three people with direct knowledge, while others read or studied, with six books allowed per month.
‘POINT OF RESISTANCE’
Fourteen members of the group, which includes former lawmakers and lawyers, received bail.
Despite the legal risks, a few who spoke to Reuters said Hong Kong residents should ignore the election or vote blank. The city’s anti-corruption supervisor has arrested 10 people in recent weeks for allegedly inciting them to cast empty votes.
“There is little we can do now, but this is a point of resistance,” said another Democrat, referring to giving empty votes and avoiding elections. “Whether you’re in exile, or in prison, or you’re still part of Hong Kong society, don’t let the outside environment bite you.”
In a primary poll last July, Democrats ran street stalls and discussed their platforms with citizens and rivals, in a bid to nominate their best candidates.
Nearly 600,000 people voted at pop-up stations – about 15% of the city’s 4 million registered voters.
In the district council elections at the end of 2019, Democrats won 90% of the nearly 500 seats with a record turnout of 71%.
While Democrats in prison can vote, those abroad are banned, although all major opposition parties, including the Democratic Party, have chosen not to run in the election on the grounds that they are undemocratic.
Authorities are working to raise support for the election, organizing free transportation to polling stations and appealing to social media to encourage people to cast their ballots.
“They want to see a lot of people vote to show that there are no problems, that everything is normal,” Cheung said. “But we have to tell Beijing that we will not cooperate with this act.”
Exiled activist Nathan Law, who was also a candidate in the primary election, told Reuters this month that the December 19 poll was just a “Beijing choice”.
Of the 153 candidates vying for 90 seats, the vast majority are pro-Beijing and pro-establishment figures, with only a few so-called moderates.
Senior Chinese official Xia Baolong recently said that “destabilizing forces” would be banned from running and that the poll would be “positive”.
Lam, the leader of Hong Kong, also said earlier that Democrats, as long as they prove “patriotic”, are welcome to run.
(This story corrects the title of paragraph 11 to the Magistrate from Justice)