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Hong Kong's Effort to Penalize Protests Is Creating a Feedback Loop

Chinese authorities reversed an earlier decision not to jail a young figurehead of the democracy movement, a decision that's only fueled more citizen unrest.
Protesters attend a rally to support jailed activists Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow on August 20th, 2017, in Hong Kong, China.

Protesters attend a rally to support jailed activists Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow on August 20th, 2017, in Hong Kong, China.

Hong Kong authorities' imprisonment of democracy movement leaders, including 20-year-old figurehead Joshua Wong, seems so far to have only re-energized calls for accountable government there, in what analysts are calling a miscalculation by the regional government—and, by extension, China's central leadership.

Wong—together with Alex Chow and Nathan Law, fellow leaders of the Umbrella Movement that brought Hong Kong to a standstill in 2014—was sentenced Thursday to between six and eight months in prison on charges of unlawful assembly. All three have since appealed the decision, sources say.

Last year, Wong was convicted on the charges and sentenced to community service. It appeared to be a strategic decision by Hong Kong authorities; jailing a young symbol of the fight for good governance would only arouse renewed anger in the demonstrators who had once halted traffic in the Greater China Region's financial hub. That movement had since fizzled out into occasional flashpoints and press events by leaders like Wong.

Hong Kong's regional government won an appeal last week to that sentencing, in the process giving the leaders harsher punishments. By Sunday, anger over Wong and the other leaders' incarceration had already drawn tens of thousands to the streets of Hong Kong. Ultimately, the bid to penalize public assembly had only led to more public assembly.

On Tuesday, Wong appeared again in court over charges that he refused to comply with a court order to clear a protest site in the 2014 demonstrations. Whether that trial would result in a longer sentence remained uncertain.

Wong's colleagues expressed confidence in the future of their movement. "Joshua and [the others] are really tough, they will keep learning new things in jail and prepare to join the movement again when they are back," Derek Lam, an organizing members of Demosistō—the political party organized by Wong and others—tells Pacific Standard. "We are very encouraged by the number of people who decided to take to the streets again last Sunday. It shows the department of justice's attempt to scare the people with heavy sentencing and charges has utterly failed."

There were no immediate plans for more rallies, but Lam and his colleagues who remain out of prison plan to do more "groundwork" in the coming week.

"The imprisonment shows the continued deterioration of freedoms in Hong Kong."

If the re-sentencing was meant to scare Hong Kong residents from the streets, right advocates say, it doesn't seem to be working.

Sharon Hom, director of Human Rights in China, a non-governmental organization based in New York and Hong Kong, says the courts handed down "clearly politicized decisions."

"Under a narrow and formalistic invocation of the 'rule of law,' the Hong Kong Court of Appeal laid out the legal parameters for the acceptable exercise of rights—i.e. acceptable to Beijing, and sent a punitive message of intimidation to Hong Kongers, especially the youth," Hom says.

But it's a message that, for many, appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

"Clearly, the threat did not succeed as demonstrated by the tens of thousands of people who took to the streets to protest the decision over the weekend," Hom says. "By undermining its own credibility, the court can now claim credit for radicalizing and mobilizing not only young people, but Hong Kongers concerned about fairness, rule of law, and the future of Hong Kong."

Still, the leaders' incarceration marks a "watershed moment," says Maya Wang, senior China researcher at international civil liberties advocacy group Human Rights Watch.

That Hong Kong's courts reversed an earlier decision in a way that aligns more closely with Beijing's calls to totally crush the democracy movement sets a troubling precedent, legally.

"The imprisonment shows the continued deterioration of freedoms in Hong Kong," Wang says. "I think in the past one could count on the judiciary being independent, but we're seeing increasingly even that is being corroded by Beijing's intervention. We've seen, last year, that Beijing intervened in ongoing court proceedings, changing the functional constitution to eject elected pro-independence legislators from the legislature. We've seen, this year, that the Department of Justice sought, in uncommon moves, to seek heavier sentences for peaceful protestors."

China, as in many parts of the world, has faced heightened tumult of late. President Donald Trump announced last week a probe into allegations of the country's theft of intellectual property. Beijing's counterparts in neighboring North Korea are expected to retaliate against a series of joint drills between Washington and Seoul this week. It seems the last thing Beijing needs right now is reignited tensions to China's South.

Wang believes that, under the administration of renowned hardliner Xi Jinping, China isn't swayed too much by the prospect of more turbulence.

"Beijing has maintained a hard line over Hong Kong for some time now, and it seems that it will continue to do so under President Xi Jinping's iron-fist leadership, which is expected to last at least until 2022 and possibly beyond," Wang says. "I think Beijing's calculations are that, given enough pressure, people in Hong Kong would give up. But as we have seen elsewhere in China and in the world, people's yearning for freedoms cannot be easily extinguished."

For the time being, it seems Chinese authorities are witnessing the paradox of quashing protests in this way: It only seems to inspire more protests.