The jailing of Joshua Wong, Hong Kong’s youthful “face of protest”, and of his fellow activists Nathan Law and Alex Chow, is technically a matter of law but in reality one of politics. Two of them had already carried out community service for unlawful assembly or inciting unlawful assembly; the third had received a suspended sentence. That was not enough. They have been at the forefront of the pro-democracy movement, inspiring many more in Hong Kong to rally in defence of the greater freedoms it has enjoyed compared to the mainland under the “one country-two systems” formula. Authorities have been determined to silence these voices. By appealing against the “rather dangerous” supposed leniency of the original sentences, they have succeeded, for now.
The trio were among those who forced their way into Civic Square, just outside government offices, to hold a sit-in in 2014. Their arrests helped to spark the Umbrella Movement, an unprecedented mass act of peaceful civil disobedience which gave the lie to the belief that Hong Kong people do not care about politics or civil rights, only prosperity and stability. Many do; but young people in particular are increasingly concerned about the erosion of the region’s way of life – theoretically guaranteed until 2047, 50 years after handover, but in reality worn down at an increasing speed.
How convenient that the new sentences, of between six and eight months, prevent the men from standing for election in the next five years. Mr Law was elected to the legislative council last year, but disqualified by a court last month for his “insincere” oath of office – one of several pro-democracy representatives who have been similarly removed.
These events amplify the alarms sounding in the region at Beijing’s heavy-handedness. They remind us, if reminder were needed, that civil society and the judicial system in Hong Kong are under mounting pressure. The sentences tell those who are unhappy to beware of action on the streets. But nor, clearly, can they rely on the electoral systems which allow Hong Kong people some degree of say.
“They can silence protests, remove us from the legislature and lock us up. But they will not win the hearts and minds of Hongkongers,” Mr Wong wrote in a tweet minutes after his sentencing . Beijing calculates the costs of both cracking down and holding back. It does not much care about love as long as it wins compliance.