Hong Kong’s Victoria Park will be eerily silent June 4, the 33rd anniversary of Tiananmen Square. In 2019, and every year between it and 1989, thousands gathered there to commemorate the martyrs of the massacre. But in just three years, the government has made more than 1,000 Hong Kongers political prisoners, making it dangerous even to stand silently at a vigil.
There were a mere 26 political prisoners in June 2019, when crowds took to the streets to protest a bill to allow extradition from Hong Kong to the mainland — and thus let Beijing punish political protest. Carrie Lam, then chief executive, ultimately shelved the legislation. But the fire had already been lit, and Hong Kong has jailed 1,104 since.
Like their slain brethren in Tiananmen, they are suffering for the simplest of desires: to live in a democratic system in which human rights and free speech reign supreme. They are a testament to how little China has changed since 1989; freedom fighters are met with the same old Chinese Communist Party violence and suppression.
The Hong Kong Democracy Council, which tallied the arrests, reports that Hong Kong has one of the fastest-growing political-prisoner populations in the world, “rivaling Belarus, Burma, and Cuba” — and it will continue to rise.
Some 582 Hong Kongers are in custody; 432 have completed their sentences and “are presumed released.” Presumed. More than 1,000 political trials are ongoing. Some aren’t even scheduled to start until 2023, almost four years after the “crime” of protesting Beijing’s tyrannical rule.
To put down the protests, Beijing in June 2020 passed a law, broad and intentionally vague, that allows Hong Kong to prosecute anyone for anything the CCP deems a threat to “national security.” Last month, the government used it to arrest 90-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen for participating in the 2019 protests, along with other prominent activists including ex-lawmaker Margaret Ng and pop star and gay-rights advocate Denise Ho.
The outspoken, diffident (and wonderful human being) Jimmy Lai, 74, once owner of Hong Kong’s biggest pro-democracy newspaper, has been jailed since December 2020, convicted of unlawful assembly for attending a 2019 prayer vigil. He faces even more prosecution under the national-security law.
But largely these political prisoners have been young. More than three-quarters are under 30, more than half under 25 and more than 15% under 18. “There is no better symbol of the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to smash Hong Kongers’ aspirations for democracy, autonomy and freedom than the incarceration of hundreds who represent its future,” HKDC notes.
What makes these arrests all the more outrageous is that the territory was guaranteed its freedom and autonomy under the 1997 Sino-British Joint Declaration when Britain gave Hong Kong back to China.
Now look at it. HKDC isn’t exaggerating when it talks of “Hong Kong’s rapid descent into authoritarianism.”
John Lee, Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader who assumes office in July after winning 99% of the vote in a one-man election, has promised that no one is off limits.
The Wall Street Journal noted in April: “The security law asserts sweeping extraterritorial reach. In March Hong Kong demanded that the British human-rights group Hong Kong Watch take down its web site and threatened to hold co-founder Benedict Rogers personally liable for ‘colluding with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.’”
As the Communist Party commits new human-rights violations in Hong Kong — and let’s not forget the Uighurs in Xinjiang’s concentration camps — it’s also trying to cover up any reminder of its past atrocities. Texts critical of Beijing are disappearing from libraries, schools and the Internet in Hong Kong. Last year, authorities removed a statue — the only known major monument on Chinese soil that commemorated the Tiananmen Square victims — from the University of Hong Kong. The 26-foot-high sculpture, known as “The Pillar of Shame,” depicted 50 human bodies intertwined in pain.
The CCP would erase everything but party loyalty from the minds of all its citizens, if only it had the power. We must realize that now we’re the keepers of the monstrous memories. One day, Lord willing, the Chinese Communist Party will fall, and there’ll be millions of young Chinese who know nothing of the truth. We’ll need to tell them.
Elisha Maldonado is a Post editorial board member, a Foundation for Defense of Democracies media fellow and an Independent Women’s Forum senior fellow.