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Hong Kong's pro-democracy leaders who took part in a primary election go on trial

Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and former lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting (C) is escorted as he arrives at the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre after appearing at the West Kowloon Court the day before on the charge of conspiracy to commit subversion, in Hong Kong, on March 2, 2021.
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Hong Kong pro-democracy activist and former lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting (C) is escorted as he arrives at the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre after appearing at the West Kowloon Court the day before on the charge of conspiracy to commit subversion, in Hong Kong, on March 2, 2021.

Updated February 10, 2023 at 4:18 PM ET

More than two years have passed since pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong were rounded up in the early hours of the morning. Police arrested teachers, lawyers, journalists and some lawmakers.

Michael C. Davis, a longtime law professor at Hong Kong University told NPR their only crime was democracy.

Davis has since left Hong Kong and is now a global fellow at the Wilson Center. He says many of the people arrested were his friends, colleagues, and even some former students.

On Monday, the trial began for 47 people charged with attempting to subvert the government in Hong Kong. Most defendants have already pleaded guilty, only 16 contest the charge.

A new national security law passed in 2020 has given Beijing's government more authority on judicial matters in Hong Kong.

Some are facing as much as 3 years to life in prison for taking part in an unofficial primary election to select pro-democracy candidates to run against the pro-government candidates who are more aligned with Beijing.

Their idea was to win enough seats in parliament to block the government in Hong Kong and forward the demands of the demonstrators from the mass protests of 2019. Authorities accused them of trying to bring down the government.

Davis told Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep that the charges leveled against the 47 defendants shows what little is left of the former British colony's judicial independence.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Interview highlights

On why pro-democracy activists were arrested

They conducted an unofficial primary, which is something that has been done before in Hong Kong, basically to narrow down within a kind of fractured opposition candidates to run against the pro-government candidates. They wanted to win the elections. Their crime is, I guess, democracy, in a way.

On the plan to form an opposition coalition

My colleague, Benny Tai, actually, he's the number one guy on their list to send to jail for life. He's also a good friend. But he had the idea that, you know, because they always were in the minority, even though they won the majority of votes. So the idea was if they could work together carefully and use some of the functional seats also, that they might get a majority for the first time and be able to use basic law rules that would allow them to push the government.

On the legal context

They're claiming that they're basically trying to overthrow the government because if they win the election that the majority they're going for, then they could block the government's budget. So they were going to try and use the basic law rules to push the government. And their overall objective, of course, is that Beijing carry out its promises regarding democratic reform in Hong Kong.

On Hong Kong's national security law

They were all arrested, 53 originally. Only 47 were charged. And then 33 for most of the past two years were in jail, denied bail because the national security law also has a provision creating a presumption against bail, which is kind of contrary to the common law tradition in Hong Kong, which, you know, applies the principle of you're innocent until proven guilty, which is why bail is relevant. So they spent all this time in jail, I guess under severe pressure in a way. Most of them pleaded eventually pleaded guilty. There are 16 left who are actually going to trial.

On what the defendants are facing

It's really kind of confusing for the defendants because it's not even clear upfront which of the crimes they're being charged with. It's subversion but at the same time, the question becomes, are they going to be charged as a principal or are they going to be charged as someone in a lesser role?

And then there's an idea that comes out of a recent interpretation by Beijing that if the government says something involves national security, then the court cannot question that. So the basic defense that 'I'm just engaging in free speech or my political rights' may fail simply because the government has already said that this involves national security.

On his former student Lam Cheuk-ting

Lam Cheuk Ting, who was a legislator. Earlier I had taught at the Chinese University and he was my student there. And he he's just a dedicated member of the community. He's always out working for people. Even during some of the protests, he would try to show up and moderate between the police and the protesters so that, you know, people would not engage in violence and so on.

He was rewarded in a year long protest with that by being charged himself with a crime. Which is true, quite frankly, of a lot of the people being charged under the national security law, not only in this case, but in others, that they're the kind of people that really care about their community and stand up for it.

On international pressure

I teach human rights. I tell my students human rights work is reporting, it's exposing, it's drawing attention to an issue because sometimes you don't have leverage with governments that violate human rights in extreme ways, but you want to keep the pressure up. And I think it's very important for Hong Kong that your attention in the media and official attention continues.

The audio version of the interview with Michael C. Davis was produced by Kaity Kline. The digital version was edited by Majd Al-Waheidi contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Mohamed Elbardicy