Religion & Liberty Online

The trial of Jimmy Lai and seven other pro-democracy activists has begun in Hong Kong

(Image credit: Associated Press)

In what is sure to make headlines worldwide, former newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai and seven others are being tried for participating in a Tiananmen Square Massacre vigil last year, now banned under the extremist National Security Law.

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The trial of outspoken media tycoon and longtime Acton friend Jimmy Lai, along with seven other influential pro-democracy activists, began Nov. 1 in a Hong Kong court.

The group is being tried for participating in an unauthorized Tiananmen Square Massacre vigil last year, which is now forbidden under Hong Kong’s stifling National Security Law.

The vigil was an annual event hosted on June 4 by the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Democratic Movements in China. Thousands of participants would flock to Victoria Park, lighting candles and singing songs, to remember those who were killed by Chinese police in the bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Last year’s vigil was banned, however, owing to the event’s supposed violation of COVID regulations, and efforts to mark the anniversary were physically blocked by a large police presence. Yet thousands defied police warnings and commemorated the massacre anyway.

Lai and the seven others on trial, including Lee Cheyk-yan, the former chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance, face charges including organizing, participating in, and inciting others to participate in last year’s banned vigil.

The South China Morning Post reported that of the eight defendants, Lee and four others pleaded guilty to incitement charges as the trial began. Lee also pleaded guilty to organizing the vigil, while former Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai pleaded guilty to participation.

Lai, reporter and activist Gwyneth Ho, and former alliance vice-chair Chow Hang-tung pleaded not guilty.

All eight activists initially pleaded not guilty, according to The Guardian.

Critics believe the COVID-related explanation for the ban on last year’s vigil was merely a smokescreen for the Hong Kong government’s increasing crackdown on political dissent, as well as freedoms of speech, assembly, and expression.

Passed down from Beijing, Hong Kong’s strict National Security Law bans what the city deems as acts of subversion, secession, or terrorism. Since the law’s implementation in June 2020, more than 150 activities and individuals have been arrested.

Twenty-six activists were charged over some form of participation in last year’s vigil, including many members of the Alliance.

In fact, the Alliance was forced to disband in September after it denied Hong Kong authorities’ request for information on its membership, finances, and activities. The group was accused of colluding with foreign forces, an offense punishable by up to life in prison. Four of the Alliance’s members were arrested and the group had no choice but to fold.

Of the 26 activists arrested after last year’s vigil, 16 of them, including Joshua Wong, previously pleaded guilty over their participation and were handed sentences of between four and 10 months.

Two other charged individuals, including Nathan Law, secretary-general of the Hong Kong federation of students, and Sunny Cheung, former spokesman for the Hong Kong Higher Institutions International Affairs Delegation, have fled the city.

At the center of this attempt to crush civil and human rights in Hong Kong is Jimmy Lai, entrepreneur and former publisher of Apple Daily, whose reporting on the Beijing-inspired denial of basic freedoms once enjoyed in the city incited a government crackdown. The documentary The Hong Konger, focusing on Lai’s pro-democracy activism, courage, and confrontation with Hong Kong authorities, will debut in early 2022, produced by the Acton Institute.

Kara Wheeler

Kara Wheeler is a member of the Acton Institute’s 2021 Emerging Leaders class. She is a senior at Aquinas College majoring in in English and Journalism. She loves to write, partake in any sport she can, and can be found either on the water or in downtown Grand Rapids.