More than two dozen of Hong Kong’s young pro-democracy activists have been convicted of minor offenses in recent weeks, and some have received lengthy jail terms. Most are being put away for their involvement in the so-called Fishball Revolution, a spontaneous protest that turned violent on the first night of Chinese New Year in 2016 in the popular shopping district of Mong Kok.
On Monday, Edward Leung, the charismatic former spokesman of a young party that has called for Hong Kong’s independence from mainland China, was given a six-year jail sentence for mere skirmishes with the police. He is one of the leading figures among those known here as “localists”: activists, many of them separatists, who cut their political teeth during the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
That night in early 2016 Mr. Leung and colleagues from his party, Hong Kong Indigenous, rose to the defense of street hawkers selling fish balls and other delicacies to New Year revelers as food inspectors tried to clear them out, in front of police officers standing by. In April, during a hearing at his trial, Mr. Leung said that he had confronted an officer who was manhandling a female protester.
He was arrested and charged with attacking the police, rioting (two counts) and, a far more serious offense, instigating a riot. (He also pleaded guilty to hitting and kicking an officer.) In the end, Mr. Leung was found guilty of one count of rioting, even though witnesses say that his skirmishes with the police happened before the rioting proper even began.
More problematic still is the government’s abusive application of the law against him and other localists. To my knowledge, Hong Kong courts had not heard one case of politically motivated rioting since 1967. That year, a minor labor dispute in a factory quickly ballooned into full-blown chaos as Communist unionists, students of Communist-controlled schools and employees of Communist media, banks and trading companies took to the streets against the British colonial government. Local Maoist radicals seized on that moment to try to bring the Cultural Revolution to Hong Kong — with terrorism. During the roughly six months that the riots lasted, some 1,100 bombs (and many more fake ones) were planted throughout the city. More than 50 people died and some 800 people were injured.
Mr. Leung was convicted of rioting under the 1970 Public Order Ordinance, a holdover from colonial days that defines a riot very broadly, as an “unlawful assembly” that leads to a “breach of the peace.” Reacting to Mr. Leung’s sentence on Monday — which he called “extreme” — Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last governor before the British handed the city to China in 1997, explained that the colonial authorities had amended the ordinance in the 1990s to limit the risk that it would be applied abusively. But, Mr. Patten said, the Chinese government reversed those changes soon after the handover.
That these provisions are now being wielded against localists is a measure of how vexing recent calls for greater autonomy for Hong Kong have become for China. Repression on the mainland has kept public dissent under a tight lid since the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and the Chinese authorities wish they could do as much with growing separatist sentiments in Hong Kong.
The same goes, manifestly, for the city’s own elites — those in power, predictably, but stalwarts of the mainstream opposition as well. The ruling elite — pro-Beijing politicians, public officials and business leaders — essentially wants Hong Kong to keep conducting business as usual: namely, to make money in a stable environment. So be it if achieving that now means tolerating China’s heavy hand; this group frowns on any talk of separatism, or even just further democratization, that could invite retaliation from Beijing.
Hong Kong’s traditional opposition, known locally as the “pan-dems,” is a seasoned group of pro-democracy politicians and advocates, and their supporters. Like the localists, pan-dems want free and fair elections in Hong Kong and resent Beijing’s encroachment on the city’s liberties. But they part ways with the younger cohort of separatists over what it means to be Chinese.
In fact, many pan-dems converge with the Chinese Communists in believing in a strong and unified China — although in their case, one not under Communist leadership. And so they look upon the localists as splittists within the pro-democracy opposition, whose actions risk benefiting Beijing by fragmenting the movement.
Pan-dems believe that Hong Kong’s independence is an unrealistic goal and, some have told me time and again, that advocating it will only bring on more repression from Beijing — like the harsh prison sentences recently or restrictions on free speech — to the detriment of the entire pro-democracy camp.
Leung Chun-ying, the previous chief executive of Hong Kong and a Beijing lackey, has said that Mr. Leung (no relation) “deserved” to be convicted of rioting. Little surprise there. But Albert Ho, a former chairman of the leading pan-dem political group, the Democratic Party, rather than decrying the conviction as unfair, praised Mr. Leung, the localist, for returning to Hong Kong to face his trial and “shoulder his responsibilities.” Another notable pan-dem, from the more aggressively vocal People Power Party, went further, saying that sympathy for the young separatist — whom he called “riffraff” — would be grossly misplaced.
I saw Mr. Leung in prison on Tuesday. “Now that I am serving a long and unfair sentence,” he told me, “at least I can convince people that I am not, and that my generation of localists are not, in politics for self-gain.”
Hong Kong’s localists, the most valiant defenders of the city’s unique culture, rights and autonomy, are now essentially on their own. Singled out for the severest rebukes by the Chinese government and hounded by the Hong Kong authorities, they also have been essentially disavowed by the local mainstream pro-democracy camp. Yet they are only hoping to succeed where it failed: They are trying to stop the barbarians at Hong Kong’s gate.
Yi-Zheng Lian, a commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs, is a professor of economics at Yamanashi Gakuin University, in Kofu, Japan, and a contributing opinion writer.