by Su Xinqi and Jerome Taylor
Hundreds of democracy supporters gathered outside a Hong Kong courthouse on Monday chanting slogans and flashing protests symbols as some of the city’s best-known dissidents were expected to appear in the dock later charged with subversion.
Beijing is battling to stamp out dissent in semi-autonomous Hong Kong after swathes of the population hit the streets in 2019 in huge and sometimes violent democracy demonstrations.
It has blanketed the once free-wheeling finance hub in a sweeping national security law, while anti-coronavirus measures ban more than four people gathering together in public.
Police on Sunday charged 47 leading dissidents with conspiracy to commit subversion in the largest use yet of the security legislation, as authorities seek to cripple the democracy movement once and for all.
The move sparked renewed international criticism — led by the US and Britain — that Beijing was shredding the freedoms and autonomy it promised Hong Kong could maintain ahead of the city’s handover from the British.
Hundreds queued up outside the law courts on Monday where the charged dissidents were expected to appear for their first hearing in one of the biggest protest gatherings in months.
Some chanted slogans including “Release all political prisoners” and “Stand with Hong Kong”. Others flashed the three-finger “Hunger Games” salute that has been embraced by fellow democracy campaigners in Thailand and Myanmar.
Kwan Chun-sang, a local district councillor, was one of dozens who camped overnight to bag a spot at the front of the queue for the court’s public gallery.
“Soon after the charges were laid yesterday I decided to come and spend the night here,” Kwan told AFP.
“I would like to show my support for the pro-democracy activists.”
A small group of nationalist protesters also held up banners welcoming the subversion charges.
One of their banners read: “Punish the traitors severely, enact the national security law and throw them all behind bars.”
‘Jailed, exiled and charged’
Those appearing in court on Monday represent a broad cross-section of Hong Kong’s opposition, from veteran former pro-democracy lawmakers to academics, lawyers, social workers and a host of youth activists.
The alleged offence of those arrested for subversion was to organise an unofficial primary last summer to choose candidates for the city’s partially elected legislature, in hopes that the pro-democracy bloc might take a majority for the first time.
Chinese and Hong Kong officials viewed the primary as an attempt to “overthrow” the city’s government and therefore a threat to national security.
They were arrested in a series of dawn raids in January and charged on Sunday with “conspiracy to commit subversion” — one of the new broadly defined national security crimes. They face up to life in prison if convicted.
Democracy supporters described the move as a body blow.
“Every prominent voice of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong now is either jailed, in exile, or charged for subversion of state power,” activist Sophie Mak tweeted.
The security law was imposed on the city last year and criminalises any act deemed to be subversion, secession, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces.
The wording and subsequent application of the legislation has successfully curbed dissent, outlawed a host of political views and radically transformed semi-autonomous Hong Kong’s relationship with the authoritarian mainland.
Those charged can usually expect to be remanded into custody for months until their trial as the law removes the territory’s tradition of granting bail for non-violent crimes.
The latest charges sparked a fresh round of international criticism of Beijing and the city’s authorities.
“We condemn the detention of and charges filed against pan-democratic candidates in Hong Kong’s elections and call for their immediate release,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken tweeted.
Both Britain and the European Union said the charges showed the law was being used to target political dissent rather than actual threats to national security.
But China’s authoritarian leaders are unmoved, vowing to restore stability to the city and ensure only “staunch patriots” remain.