Beijing’s clampdown on dissent in city has silenced unions and politicians that traditionally supported workers’ rights.
A young Hong Kong democracy activist has been sentenced to three and a half years behind bars after pleading guilty to secession under the city’s sweeping national security law.
With Tuesday’s sentencing, Tony Chung, 20, is now the youngest person to be convicted under the law, which has crushed dissent in Hong Kong and transformed the territory.
Earlier this month, he pleaded guilty to one count of secession and one count of money laundering but declared he had “nothing to be ashamed of”.
Chung was previously the convener of Studentlocalism, a small group he set up five years ago as a secondary school student to advocate for Hong Kong’s independence from China.
Separation from China was then a fringe minority view in Hong Kong although calls for self-rule became more vocal during massive pro-democracy protests two years ago.
Beijing imposed the security law on Hong Kong in response to the protests, which sometimes turned violent, and Studentlocalism was disbanded hours before the legislation came into effect.
Authorities accused Chung of continuing to operate the group with the help of overseas activists and soliciting donations via PayPal.
Prosecutors said Chung’s group published more than 1,000 social media posts that included calls to “get rid of Chinese Communist colonial rule” and “build a Hong Kong republic”.
More than 150 arrested
Some of the posts prosecutors cited dated back to before the security law was imposed even though the authorities had said that the law would not be retroactive.
On Tuesday, Stanley Chan, one of a group of select judges picked by the government to try national security cases, said Chung’s criminal intent was “clear for all to see” on social media, in interviews, at street booths and in schools.
“He actively organised, planned and implemented activities to separate the country,” the judge said.
Chung has already spent more than a year in custody after he was arrested in October 2020.
He was nabbed by plainclothes police from a coffee shop opposite the US consulate, where he was allegedly planning to seek asylum.
The security law targets anything authorities deem subversion, “terrorism” or collusion with foreign forces.
Chung initially faced an additional charge of sedition and another count of money laundering but they were shelved following a plea bargain.
In a separate case last December, Chung was jailed for four months for unlawful assembly and insulting China’s national flag.
Four other men have so far been convicted in separate cases under the security law – mostly for their political views.
More than 150 people have been arrested under the legislation, with almost half of them charged.
Bail is often denied and guilty pleas are a way to reduce both the end sentence and the legal costs of a long court battle.
Most democratic politicians are now in jail or in self-exile. Dozens of civil society organisations have folded, and some international rights groups have left the city.
Chinese and Hong Kong authorities deny the security law tramples on individual rights and say the legislation was necessary to restore stability after the protests.
The former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with Beijing promising a high degree of autonomy for at least 50 years.