The veteran activists and politicians Martin Lee, Jimmy Lai, Margaret Ng and Lee Cheuk-yan have received sentences of up to 12 months in jail for their involvement in Hong Kong’s protest movement.
“Thus we left Hong Kong to her fate and the hope that Martin Lee, the leader of the Democrats, would not be arrested,” wrote Prince Charles in his diary, after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. At the time Hong Kong was promised 50 years of semi-autonomy – it lasted less than half that.
Lee arrived in Hong Kong in 1949 as an 11-year-old, the son of a former Kuomintang lieutenant general who brought his family to Hong Kong when they lost the civil war in China. Lee, now an 82-year-old barrister, grew to become one of the city’s most respected legal minds.
Over the decades Beijing has called him a “traitor”, a “counter-revolutionary” and, in 2019, one of
a “new Gang of Four” alongside Lai, Albert Ho and the former Hong Kong chief secretary Anson Chan. In Hong Kong he is known as the “father of democracy”.
In the late 1980s, ahead of the 1997 handover from British rule, Lee was one of 23 Hong Kong people invited to join the drafting committee on Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the basic law. But in 1989 he was expelled from the committee after he criticised the massacre of Tiananmen Square protesters and advocated for sanctions.
In the 1990s he formed and led the Democratic party to huge success, serving in politics until his retirement in 2008. He continued to lobby internationally and defended pro-democracy protesters in court. Lee was a key participant of both the 2014 Occupy protests and the 2019 anti-extradition/pro-democracy protests.
Until his arrest in April 2020 over the August 2019 rally, Lee had never faced a courtroom as a defendant.
“Over the months and years, I’ve felt bad to see so many outstanding youngsters being arrested and prosecuted, but I was not charged,” he said at the time of his arrest. “I feel proud that I have a chance to walk this path of democracy together with them.”
Almost one year later, on 1 April, Lee and seven others were found guilty.
“Hong Kong may be a tragedy but I won’t give up,” he said last year. “Even if you jail me, kill me, I will still point out it’s their fault. Democracy will come to China one day.”
Ng is a 73-year-old barrister and columnist, and a former politician in Hong Kong. She has never been on trial before this year. She first studied philosophy in Hong Kong and Boston, before reading law at Cambridge. Ng was called to the bar in the late 1980s, but instead became a journalist and editor because it was a “crucial” time of the Sino-British negotiations over Hong Kong’s future.
“My generation was embroiled in finding a way to preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms and original way of life after the change of sovereignty,” she told the court on Friday.
The pro-democracy activist and barrister Margaret Ng arrives at a court in Hong Kong. Photograph: Kin Cheung/AP
Ng served in parliament for 18 years, including as chair of a panel with oversight of the judiciary and working with NGOs to build community legal assistance, but also remained an activist, protesting against Beijing’s standing committee overturning a Hong Kong court judgment in 1999.
She is an internationally renowned legal professional and in 2019 was
jointly awarded the International Bar Association’s human rights award, along with Martin Lee, for their lifelong defence of freedom, democracy and the rule of law.
On Friday she told the court the rule of law had to be defended not just in parliament and the courts but also on the streets, where she was not protected by privilege.
“When the people, in the last resort, had to give collective expression to their anguish and urge the government to respond, protected only by their expectation that the government will respect their rights, I must be prepared to stand with them, stand by them and stand up for them. Otherwise, all my pledges and promises would be just empty words.”
Lee is a 64-year-old veteran activist, trade union leader, and former legislator, serving from the mid-1990s to 2016. He is also the former chair of the
Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organises Hong Kong’s annual vigil for the Tiananmen Square massacre and has been closely linked to the pro-democracy protests.
The government crackdown and anti-gathering laws related to the pandemic have stopped the millions-strong marches, but Lee has continued to protest, including going ahead with a vigil on 4 June to mark the 31st anniversary of Tiananmen Square, for which he and others including Lai were arrested and charged.
Lee Cheuk-yan holds candles as he speaks ahead of a memorial vigil to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Photograph: Anthony Kwan/Getty
Lee has been a vocal advocate for Hong Kong democracy – but not a supporter of independence – and was one of the remaining high-profile figures still willing and able to speak publicly despite his repeated arrests.
He told the Guardian earlier this year he expected to go to jail, saying it would be a “miracle” if none of the four cases against him resulted in a prison term.
“You can still fight on with your spirit, and physically we can’t be restrained by jail sentences,” he said in January.
In pleading guilty to the August 2019 rally charges, Lee said he and his co-accused had done nothing wrong but did not want to waste time with a second appeal on similar arguments to those running in the 18 August case. “History will absolve us,” he said.
Lai, 72, is a millionaire media tycoon who made his money with the clothing company Giordano before founding the Apple Daily tabloid newspaper and the Next Digital media firm. He has been called “Asia’s Rupert Murdoch” – rich, powerful, and passionate about the news.
Lai is also facing multiple other criminal cases, and has been in jail since late last year remanded on national security charges including foreign collusion. If convicted of that charge, he could face sentences of three to 10 years in jail, or up to life if the offence is deemed “of a grave nature”. The charges relate to comments he made in interviews to foreign media and on social media, in opposition to the crackdown.
Jimmy Lai is also facing multiple other criminal cases. Photograph: Jérôme Favre/EPA
Chinese state media has described Lai as a “genuine traitor” and a conspirator against Beijing, accusing him of inciting protests and inviting foreign meddling in Chinese affairs.
In advocating for Hong Kong he has been closely aligned with US political figures, including prominent republicans such as the former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and the former president Donald Trump.
At the time of his arrest he expressed surprise it happened so quickly, thinking Beijing would want to keep the situation calm for business and foreign investors. “It only shows me that maybe the regime is in great disorder because they don’t coordinate,” he said.
This week he wrote a letter to his staff, urging them to “stand tall” but stay safe. “Freedom of speech is a dangerous job,” he wrote. “Please be careful not to take risks. Your own safety is very important.”