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Pro-Democracy Activists Remanded Following Guilty Plea Over 2019 Protests

Pro-democracy activist Avery Ng gestures to the media before a trial over charges related to an unauthorised assembly on October 1, 2019, outside the court in Hong Kong, China May 17, 2021.

Six Hong Kong pro-democracy advocates have been remanded to custody after pleading guilty to their involvement in protests dating to October 2019.

District Judge Amanda Woodcock ruled in the case of political figures Figo Chan, Avery Ng, Albert Ho, Sin Chung, Yeung Sum and Richard Tsoi on Tuesday, a day after they each admitted to one count of organizing an unauthorized assembly that took place more than 18 months ago, on China’s National Day.

Overall, 10 opposition figures pleaded guilty, with four already in custody in separate cases, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai. Sentencing is due to take place on May 28.

Avery Ng, 44, among the six remanded, is secretary-general of the League of Social Democrats (LSD), Hong Kong’s most radical pro-democracy party.

The politician spoke with VOA in a phone interview last week. Up until Tuesday, he was one of the few opposition leaders who had avoided substantial jail time following dozens of arrests by authorities in recent months.

Following the 2019 anti-government protests, Beijing implemented a national security law in June last year in Hong Kong, limiting autonomy and making it easier for dissidents to be punished. The law carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Beijing recently approved electoral changes for the territory to ensure that “patriots” govern the city. According to Ng, it’s an attempt to "redefine democracy."

Ng was among 15 people who were arrested last year for their involvement in demonstrations in August and October 2019. The LSD secretary told VOA he is also linked to two outstanding cases relating to the October events and predicts he could face more than a year in prison.

Nine of the 15 who were involved in the August protests have already been sentenced. Martin Lee, 83, founder of the Democratic Party, was found guilty of organizing and participating in the rallies but was given a suspended sentence. Lai, 73 — the billionaire entrepreneur who still faces several outstanding charges, including two under the national security law — and veteran activist Lee Cheuk Yan, 64, were among five that received immediate prison sentences.

In May 2018, Ng was sentenced to four months in prison for revealing the identity of a government official who was being investigated by Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). His punishment was deemed strict, as previous cases had only resulted in a fine.

Ng alleges Hong Kong’s judicial “system and prosecution” have been “weaponized” to target politicians in recent years.

“This time around they have even managed to use the unauthorized assembly charge, to move it from a $258 fine to … at least 12-18 months in prison,” he said.

Political activist Joseph Cheng, now based in Australia, agreed with Ng’s assessment, stating it’s unreasonable to be imprisoned for taking part in a peaceful assembly.

FILE - Hong Kong academic and activist Joseph Cheng observes a Kuomintang (KMT) rally ahead of the election in Taipei, Taiwan, January 9, 2020.
FILE - Hong Kong academic and activist Joseph Cheng observes a Kuomintang (KMT) rally ahead of the election in Taipei, Taiwan, January 9, 2020.

“This raising of punishment comes rather suddenly and is very much in line with the changes in the political climate. It probably means many of the judges would like to toe the Beijing line,” he told VOA.

Discussing his own party’s future, Ng admits he’s an “internal cautious optimist,” but the outlook is “uncertain.”

“The only option for us is to remain on the streets and with the people,” Ng said.

Cheng said he believes the LSD would like to serve as the “symbolic organization of defiance within the pro-democracy movement.”

And although the trial for Ng and the remaining nine opposition figures has yet to be concluded, the activist says he is “mentally prepared” for prison and plans to spend his time by reading more.

“I do not get time to read books when I’m outside protesting. Strategically you want to pick the books that are thick. You have certain quotas, six books per month,” Ng said.

But once he is released, he wants to help advocate for the imprisoned protesters with fewer options in life.

Australia-based Cheng endorsed Ng’s efforts.

“He helps confirm the fact there are still many people with ideals, with a sense of commitment and a sense of sacrifice, even among the well-educated strata,” said Cheng. “He was a finance company director, he could earn a [high] monthly income, and he was willing to go to prison.”

Ng said he believes Hong Kong’s income disparities, high housing prices and deep distrust of government will spur social unrest for “decades.” He predicts the city must develop a “democratic system” or dissolve into a “more controlled, more authoritarian, more Singapore, more Chinese, more surveillance” type of system.

But for the immediate future, he believes Hong Kong will first see a “period of stagnation” after two years of political turmoil.

“I think we are Chapter Two of Book 1 of a series of books,” said Ng. “We’ve got beaten down, and in the third act we will rise again, and then probably another sequel.”

Whatever the future may hold for Hong Kong, Ng is content to be a part of it.

“We’re in the middle of history,” he said.