Conflicts & War

Hong Kong activists continue pro-democracy movement despite setbacks

By Shirley Lau

Hong Kong, Apr 21 (EFE).- Minutes after a Hong Kong court passed months-long jail sentences against five pro-democracy leaders Friday for holding an unauthorized peaceful protest in 2019, people attending the hearing erupted in fury.

Some gathered in the lobby outside the courtroom and bellowed messages of disapproval toward the ruling.

“Political repression, shameless! Political suppression, shameless!” they said.

Among those shouting was May. The 55-year-old woman said she lost count of how many times she has attended local courts over the past months to support jailed activists, including billionaire media mogul Jimmy Lai and former lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung, respectively sentenced to 14 and 18 months in jail.

“There’s no more hope in Hong Kong now. We’re under China’s full control. But still we have to come out to do something. I didn’t care about politics in the past. Now I just want to do what I can. At least I can make them [the activists] feel less lonely,” said May, who spoke under an alias for fear over her safety.

Despite Beijing’s recent sweeping political crackdown on the former British colony, activists such as May have remained unflinching in their pursuit for a full democracy in Hong Kong, despite it seeming a losing battle.

In January 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic conveniently ended the city’s months-long, sometimes violent anti-government protest that began in mid-2019. Since, Beijing has imposed drastic changes in Hong Kong, from overhauling the electoral system to banning certain speeches.

Officials say the measures are needed to restore political and social stability, but critics see them as authoritarian steps to crush the city’s remaining freedoms and autonomy.

A Beijing-imposed national security law, which took effect in June and can punish offenders with life imprisonment, has effectively stifled dissent and stirred a deep sense of fear among many Hongkongers. Scores of high-profile democracy advocates have been arrested or gone into exile.

The local electoral system was reformed so that only those favoring Mainland China can become lawmakers, having first been vetted by a pro-Beijing committee, meaning the city’s mini-parliament will no longer have an opposition.

The political climate, together with Covid-19 social distancing restrictions, leaves little room for anti-government protesters to maneuver. A march held last week by four pro-democracy activists demanding universal suffrage, for example, attracted no participant but dozens of police officers who monitored their every move.

Still, some Hongkongers continue to take the few opportunities they get to express their yearning for freedom and vent their grievances with the authorities.

One example can sometimes be found on the city’s double-decker buses, road railings and underground pedestrian crossings. Since the security law was launched, anonymous protesters have taken to writing protest slogans on these spots, as they lack surveillance cameras. Slogans include “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times,” now banned under the security law.

Ming, a protester charged with rioting in the 2019 movement who spoke under condition of anonymity, has a penchant for photographing such graffiti.

“I would come across these slogans three out of 10 times when I ride a bus. It’s so touching that there are still people who dare to do such a thing today,” he told EFE.

The main outlet for protesters to openly declare their stance, however, is the city’s courthouses. In the past year, some retirees and young people have taken on the role of so-called “court listeners” — people who attend trials of prosecuted protesters. Some young protesters go a step further by volunteering as quasi-reporters, recording essential facts from a trial and sharing them via groups on Telegram, a messaging app popular among government dissenters.

Sam, a man in his mid-20s who spoke anonymously for fear of reprisals, has been a court listener since July. He said there are likely hundreds of people doing what he does, adding that he goes to a court whenever he has time off work. He said he likes to attend trials of little-known protesters as they have fewer supporters.

“This is my way of supporting my brothers (fellow activists). I want them to know there are people out there who still care about them and harbor hope,” he said. “Things look really bad at the moment but I’m hoping for a turning point that will bring profound changes. I don’t want to get used to injustice. Injustice won’t disappear just because I ignore it.”

Outside courthouses, there are the so-called “vehicle chasers” who wait for government vehicles carrying jailed activists to turn up after a trial. Running after such vehicles, supporters shout words of encouragement and wave activists goodbye before they are sent to prison.

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