The 47 Pro-Democracy Figures in Hong Kong’s Largest National Security Trial

Forty-seven pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong have been accused of a conspiracy to commit subversion in a landmark political case. Many of the defendants have been in jail for nearly two years while awaiting trial.

The case highlights the sweeping power of a national security law China imposed to tighten its grip on the city after massive anti-government protests. These are the politicians, academics and activists who are now facing prison sentences.

Benny Tai, 58, was a professor of law at the University of Hong Kong.

Joshua Wong, 26, became a prominent activist at the age of 14.

Twelve were elected lawmakers, who had often used their presence in the legislature to protest China’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Mo had served as a lawmaker for eight years and is known as “Auntie Mo.”

Better known as “Long Hair,” Leung had been a mainstay of the opposition for nearly two decades.

Chan was Hong Kong’s first openly gay lawmaker.

Twenty-one had been elected district officials, including younger activists who were voted in following months of anti-government protests in 2019.

Sham was a leader of an activist group that organized massive pro-democracy rallies throughout 2019.

Others were prominent activists who had worked on various social causes.

Ng was a former flight attendant who became a union leader.

Ho was a journalist who rose to fame in 2019 when, during her livestream of a mob attack on protesters, she herself was beaten by thugs.

Wong was a student leader who began her activism when she was in high school.

Lengthy Detentions Without Trial

The 47 defendants were first charged in February 2021 with subversion in a case centering on the holding of an unofficial primary vote.

Unlike other types of offenses, national security cases impose a high threshold for bail, which, in effect, lets the authorities hold defendants for months or even years before trial. Critics say that amounts to a presumption that defendants are guilty.

In hearings before the trial, 16 pleaded not guilty and 31 pleaded guilty, including Benny Tai and Joshua Wong. Most, if not all, of the 47 are expected to receive prison sentences, which could range from less than three years to life.

The defendants and their lawyers are barred from commenting on the case. But legal experts say the democracy proponents are likely under enormous pressure to plead guilty because of the lengthy detentions, dwindling financial resources and the difficult chances of winning in a court modeled after China’s authoritarian system.

“The process is designed to be as painful as possible,” said Samuel Bickett, a lawyer and activist based in Washington, D.C., who was jailed in Hong Kong after scuffling with a plainclothes police officer in 2019.

The Transformation of Hong Kong’s Political Landscape

Hong Kong was engulfed in widespread protests calling for greater freedom from China starting in June 2019. To quell the unrest, Beijing imposed a national security law in June 2020, days before the 47 democrats held the primary election that would lead to their arrests months later for subversion.

Nearly three-quarters of the 47 have been jailed ever since, a span of almost two years. Their absence contributed to the dearth of anti-establishment voices in Hong Kong’s legislature, which passed controversial measures without opposition such as a “patriots only” litmus test for political candidates.

Protests began

Mass antigovernment protests began and escalated in intensity over months.

National security law enacted

The new law bans vaguely defined crimes of secession, subversion and terrorism, with a potential sentence of life in prison.

Pro-democracy primary

Pro-democracy candidates held a primary vote ahead of the upcoming Legislative Council election. The 47 defendants helped organize or participated in this event.

Original date of the election

47 people charged, most denied bail

They were charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion,” for organizing and participating in the pro-democracy primary. Most were denied bail and kept behind bars as a long legal process began.

New election rules announced

China announced new rules for Hong Kong elections, limiting candidates to only those deemed loyal to Beijing.

“Patriots-only” election takes place

More than 30 defendants are currently detained. Most of them had been jailed for almost two years before the trial even started.

The trial is expected to last three months.


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