Tim Loughton is the Conservative MP for East Worthing Shoreham and a member of the Home Affairs Committee. James B Cunningham is the Chairman of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation and a former ambassador.
Jimmy Lai’s sentencing, on Human Rights Day no less, to almost six years in prison on bogus fraud charges of violating a lease for the headquarters of his news company marks a dangerous turning point for Hong Kong – and puts another nail in the coffin of its once-vaunted rule of law.
Hong Kong was once a shining light of global enterprise, its success testament to what a free society coupled with an open and welcoming economy could achieve. Now, it is a shell of its former self, crushed by the weight of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) authoritarian might.
While the breath-taking skyline remains, behind the scenes the foundations of justice and freedom that made it great are being systematically destroyed.
The degradation of Hong Kong’s judiciary, widespread as it has been, has nonetheless been personified in the persecution of one man. Jimmy Lai, a 75-year-old British citizen and founder of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, is being held in solitary confinement in Hong Kong while he awaits trial under the Beijing-imposed National Security Law.
Two days after the fraud verdict, Lai’s national security trial, in which he faces a possible life sentence, was delayed as the Hong Kong authorities seek further guarantees that a guilty verdict is the only possible outcome.
As is normally permitted in Hong Kong, Lai is seeking to add an international representative, British KC Timothy Owen, to his legal team. The Hong Kong government’s argument that Owen’s participation on Lai’s behalf in a national security case would risk the integrity of Hong Kong’s judicial practice had twice been rejected by lower Hong Kong courts.
In November, the justices on Hong Kong’s highest court again unanimously rejected the government’s appeal for a third time, concluding that claims that Owen’s involvement would endanger national security were unsubstantiated.
Owen, should you wonder, has been described as “one of the best appellate advocates of his generation.”
After John Lee, the Chief Executive, again failed to prevail in the courts, Owen’s application of an extension to his work visa was withheld by Hong Kong’s immigration department.
Not content to accept the ruling of the Hong Kong courts up to the highest level, Lee announced that his government – the very government which is desperately trying assure the international business community that the rule of law in Hong Kong is intact and sacrosanct – was seeking an “interpretation” of the National Security Law from the central government in Beijing, inviting the CCP to overturn the ruling of the Hong Kong courts.
China’s real fear in this case is that Lai’s trial keeps Beijing’s oppression in the limelight. Against the background of China’s increasingly tenuous relations with the UK, the US, Canada and elsewhere, as well as the protests it has recently faced from its own citizens, Lai’s case is further testimony to China’s brutality.
The delay of Lai’s trial sends an ominous message that the CCP will stop at nothing to impose its will. When Lai eventually goes to trial he will not stand in front of a jury; his fate will be sealed by three judges hand-picked by the CCP.
Defiant despite the outcome that awaits him, Lai remains a committed advocate to a free and democratic Hong Kong, as promised under the “one country, two systems” agreed by the UK and China. While human rights abuses and crackdowns on freedoms have become commonplace in Hong Kong, the harsh enforcement of the National Security Law marks the point of no return.
The outright manipulation of the legal system as part of a campaign to imprison indefinitely a man who dared, along with many other Hong Kongers, to stand for his democratic principles will mean the end of the “one country/two systems” model. As a signatory of the Sino-British Declaration, the UK’s silence when it comes to challenging Beijing on its destruction of freedom in Hong Kong is deafening.
Sadly, as have China’s absorption of Hong Kong and its continued abuses of human rights in Xinjiang, its silencing of Lai and other pro-freedom voices in Hong Kong will feed its oppressive authoritarianism. The recent unmasking of Chinese police stations in the UK and across Europe is a clear indication of the lengths Beijing will go to wield control over dissenting voices.
For the UK, and democratic governments worldwide, there is a choice to be made. They can call out the persecution of Lai and many others in Hong Kong for the rank injustice that it is, or they can remain silent and therefore complicit.
They cannot be both, and time is running out for Lai – and for Hong Kong.