Prison for Hong Kong’s democracy activists

Street fighters: Joshua Wong (front left) and others march through Hong Kong. © Getty

Three years after they helped spearhead a massive anti-government movement, three Hong Kongese men have been jailed for their activism. What does this mean for the future of the region?

When Joshua Wong became the unlikely figurehead of Hong Kong’s student-led “Umbrella Revolution” in 2014, he was still too young to vote. Yet his leadership energised the biggest pro-democracy protests in the region’s history.

Three years on, his role in the protests has landed him in prison. Yesterday, Wong (now 20) and two others (24 and 26) were sentenced to half a year behind bars. They had initially been given community service, but the government appealed for a heavier penalty.

Despite their tender ages, the three men are among Hong Kong’s most prominent activists, and their imprisonment is widely seen as a political move. It bars them from seeking office for five years — something they might well have done. Amnesty International called it a “vindictive attack” on freedom of speech.

Hong Kong has never known full democracy. It was a British territory until 1997, when it was returned to China. Under the terms of the handover, labelled “one country, two systems”, the region would retain many of its unique freedoms until 2047.

From the start, however, its government was only partially democratically elected. The system gave Beijing a lot of influence over the choice of politicians. Over the years, as China’s wealth and power have increased, so has its meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs. There is strong evidence that it interferes in supposedly independent institutions, like the police.

Things heated up in 2014, when Beijing went back on a promise to let Hongkongers freely choose their leader for the first time. In a largely peaceful protest, over 100,000 campaigners for greater democracy occupied the streets for 79 days. Many held umbrellas to protect against teargas and beatings.

The Umbrella Revolution did not lead to changes in policy. Yet the years since have seen increasing anti-government activism — and ever harsher responses. Last year, Beijing openly called for two pro-independence politicians in Hong Kong’s legislature to stand down. Many assume that it forced yesterday’s ruling too.

Where now for Hong Kong’s democracy?

Rights and Wong

It looks bad, say some. The prison sentences will frighten activists; the pro-democracy movement will die down, like it did after Tiananmen Square. After 1997, many believed that authoritarian China would become more like liberal Hong Kong. It seems like the opposite is happening.

On the contrary, reply others. The decision to jail a bunch of twenty-somethings makes the Hong Kong government (and hence Beijing) look scared and weak. The past few years have shown that with every official crackdown, the pro-democracy movement grows. As Wong tweeted yesterday, “We are stronger, more determined, and we will win.”

You Decide

  1. Is it worth going to prison for one’s democratic rights?
  2. Does the fact that these three men are so young work to their advantage?


  1. Imagine you have been jailed. Make a list of the things you could not do without in prison.
  2. Write a 1,000 word essay answering the question: “Is democracy always a force for good?”

Some People Say...

“There can be no daily democracy without daily citizenship.”

— Ralph Nader

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Half the 70 seats in Hong Kong’s legislature are freely elected by citizens. The other half are mostly chosen by special interest groups, like business chiefs. The region’s powerful leader, or chief executive, is picked by a largely pro-Beijing committee of 1,200 electors; ordinary Hongkongers have no say. The region’s political system is due to be renegotiated in 2047.
What do we not know?
What will happen then. Beijing will decide whether Hong Kong gets to keep some or all of the autonomy it currently enjoys (in theory). It may well choose to fully integrate the region into China. Some Hongkongers feel Chinese, and would accept this. The pro-democracy activists, on the other hand, are pushing for even more autonomy — or even independence. This is unlikely to happen.

Word Watch

Joshua Wong
The campaigner first made headlines in 2012, when he successfully pressured the government to pull very nationalistic textbooks from schools.
A lawyer involved in the case has said that the three will appeal.
British territory
The UK took Hong Kong island after defeating China in the First Opium War in 1842, and claimed some of the mainland in later decades.
The police
In 2015, five publishers and booksellers vanished from Hong Kong in unclear circumstances. They turned up in China, where they were made to confess to a range of crimes. It is thought that the Chinese authorities arrested them for promoting books that criticised the regime.
According to Hong Kong’s constitution, the region’s leader should be directly elected by the people. Beijing said this would happen in 2017, but then announced that it would pick the candidates.
Tiananmen Square
This square in Beijing was the site of huge pro-democracy protests in 1989. They were crushed by the military, which killed hundreds of civilians. Discussion of the incident is largely prohibited in China.

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