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Elegy for Rule of Law; Exile or Imprisonment Family Safe but Bank Accounts Lost; Freedom Perished

原文:不流亡便入獄 法治悲歌 保家人失戶口 自由殤逝

In the past week, there have been a number of prominent political news stories, including the layoffs at Cable TV, which triggered the resignation of a large number of staff from its news department; Ivan Lam, Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong were heavily sentenced to 7 months, 10 months and 13.5 months respectively in prison for surrounding police headquarters last June. Next Media boss Jimmy Lai was sent to a detention centre after being charged with fraud and denied bail in court. Former Democratic Party legislator Ted Hui declared he had gone in exile during an official visit to Denmark, and later wanted by the government. Bank accounts of Hui himself, his wife and his parents were all frozen, involving millions of lifelong deposits. (Editor's note: The latest news is that Hui wrote on Facebook on Sunday night that his family's accounts had been completely unfrozen).

Strictly speaking, what happened in Hong Kong this week is a natural consequence of Beijing's speedy elimination of dissent and full control of Hong Kong's political and economic situation following the enactment of the National Security Law. This is a continuation of disqualifying 4 pan-democrats from LegCo membership, cancelling the registration of school teachers one after another. From the international point of view, this is a watershed moment showing that Hong Kong has lost its rule of law and freedom to run a business.

First of all, Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Jimmy Lai are all extremely well-known figures in the international community, and their imprisonment is widely reported by all mainstream international media. The news of their imprisonment was widely covered by the mainstream international media. Although Ted Hui is less well-known, the Democratic Party is a long-established political party, and the announcement from him, the first Democratic Party legislator, to be forced into exile also sent shockwaves across the international community. 

Secondly, legal reasons why these political figures are behind bars are unconvincing. The trio were charged with unauthorised assembly, which does not involve any violent act, and is different from the offence of unlawful assembly, which is a breach of peace. According to court sentencing precedents, a defendant pleading guilty would not normally be sentenced to imprisonment. However, the presiding judge said the assembly challenged the authority of the police and caused traffic obstruction, carries the potential risk of evolving into violence, and is thus more serious than the ordinary “unauthorised assembly”. The judge then cited a case of unlawful assembly (the Civic Square case), which involved a physical altercation, and handed down a heavy incarcerating sentence to the trio.

As for Jimmy Lai's case, the charge was even more contrived. The prosecution alleged that he and 2 other executives had “deceived” the Hong Kong Science and Technology Parks Corporation (HKSTPC) as Next Media did not use the land in Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate for the Next Digital office building as permitted, i.e. some office space was used as the contact address of a foundation Next Digital subsidised without declaring to HKSTPC. Among the tenants of the Tseung Kwan O Industrial Estate, the use of the site as a correspondence address for related organisations is very common and is at most a commercial dispute, yet the government sues Lai with a criminal fraud offence. In court, one of the national security judges appointed by the Chief Executive to preside over the trial said there is a risk of absconding and Lai's bail application was rejected. He was then locked up. It is no wonder that the Wall Street Journal published an editorial saying that the imprisonment of Jimmy Lai reflected the fact that Hong Kong had lost the freedom to do business guaranteed by the rule of law and that businessmen could be politically prosecuted for commercial disputes, a classic example of “China's lie”.

The criminal charge that Ted Hui is facing stems from a confrontation with a man during the "Reclaim Tuen Mun Park" movement in August this year, when he asked the man to delete the contents of his mobile phone and was charged by the police with perverting the course of justice, access to a computer with dishonest intent and criminal damage. However, these charges are only a prelude. Hui has been in the forefront of many social movement clashes (such as the siege of PolyU) and was accused by the police of supporting “rioting youth”. Had he not been there at the scene as a lawmaker, he would also have been charged. After the enactment of the National Security Law, a number of pan-democrats were investigated for sharing remarks in support of international sanctions on social media. Those who had participated in international lobbying for sanctions or raised local funds to support the protests had all become high-risk individuals. Only from this realistic perspective can we understand why Hui chooses to go into exile.

Immediately after the announcement of the exile of Ted Hui, the SAR Government applied for the freezing of a number of bank accounts of Ted Hui, his wife and his parents. In response to the allegations, Hui said that the $0.85M crowdfunding proceeds from his earlier private prosecution were deposited in his solicitor's office and that a detailed report had been published, but that the funds had nothing to do with his account or those of his relatives.

The confrontation between Hui and the police has yet to be verified, but the freezing of the accounts of his relatives, which is collective punishment, has nothing to do with the criminal charges against Ted Hui, nor does it match the facts of the case. This move has sent a warning message that some pan-democrat supporters who were originally on the fence about emigration must move their families and assets overseas as soon as possible, or else their passports may be confiscated due to political prosecution and their accounts frozen if they abscond. The British government estimates that between 250,000 and 320,000 BNO holders will settle in the UK in the next 5 years, and this seems very likely to become a reality.

In addition to the imprisonment and exile of political figures, the news that Cable TV has laid off dozens of news staff has also aroused widespread public concern. In the face of the COVID-19 epidemic, it is not unquestionable for a commercial TV station, which is already struggling to operate, to lay-off news department staff under the pretext of cutting costs. But Cable TV's approach to the layoffs is too dreadful and hints too much political repression. Layoff targets include the trump desks, such as China Desk and News Lancet. The staff who were laid off were mostly the most outstanding and award-winning staff. There was no prior consultation and the management was unable to give a reasonable explanation to the desk heads afterwards, so there was an outrage followed by many journalists' resignation. As the event escalated, many subscribers immediately unsubscribe from Cable TV online, forcing the 4 management staff that had parachuted into Cable TV to offer a public apology, but it was already too little and too late to win back the confidence of service subscribers, and the shareholders of Cable TV must bear the loss of both the network’s reputation and subscribers.

This sacking saga is a sign that editorial independence and press freedom can no longer be maintained when political power interferes with the operation of commercial news organisations. The lessons of the past when Mainland capital intervened in ATV's operation and eventually led to its demise are now being repeated by another television broadcaster. The fate of Hong Kong's broadcasting industry, which has fallen from its peak, reflects the fate of One Country, Two Systems.

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