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Hong Kong’s pro-democracy leaders say it’s an ‘honor’ to be jailed over fight for freedom

In another blow to the city’s democracy, seven of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy leaders were convicted of unlawful assembly on Thursday and could face up to five years in jail. Nick Schifrin focuses on three of those convicted and their fight against an increasingly aggressive Beijing.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, seven of Hong Kong's most prominent pro-democracy leaders were convinced of unlawful assembly, and, as a result, could face up to five years in jail.

    It is another blow to what is left of the city's independence.

    Nick Schifrin focuses on three of those convinced and their fight against an increasingly aggressive Beijing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Eighty-two-year-old Martin Lee left court gingerly and silently; 73-year-old Jimmy Lai wasn't even allowed in court. He was last seen in custody back in February; 64-year-old Lee Cheuk Yan spoke for the group and admitted they were resigned to their fate.

  • Lee Cheuk-Yan:

    And if we are sentenced to jail in the future for this case, or many other cases that are following, it is our honor to be in jail for walking together with the people of Hong Kong.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Their supposedly offending walk took place in August 2019. That's Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee in the pink shirt, and Lee Cheuk-Yan.

    They helped lead 1.7 million people out of Victoria Park through downtown without a permit.

  • Protesters:

    Free Hong Kong!

  • Protesters:

    Free Hong Kong!

  • Nick Schifrin:

    It was the peak of protests, initially against a new extradition law, but expanded to fundamental demands of democracy.

    But they were shut down by a wave of arrests and a national security law that's targeted the city's freedoms, and today's convictions, designed to discredit lifetimes of peaceful activism.

  • Sharon Hom:

    These three in particular, these are really like the first generation of democracy proponents who were acting professionally, acting constructively. And many would say — some of the young people would say, these were the moderates.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Sharon Hom is the executive director of the New York-based Human Rights in China. She says the three represent pillars of the democracy movement and the city.

  • Sharon Hom:

    When you look at the sectors they represent, the attacking of them, I think, both reflects the recognition of their influence, as well as a — really commitment to cutting off that influence.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Jimmy Lai was a media tycoon, until he was frog-marched by plainclothes police out of his own newsroom last summer. We spoke to him a few weeks later.

    What is the state of freedom of speech today in Hong Kong?

  • Jimmy Lai:

    As long as people are becoming more cautious, what they write, what they say, and in fear of violating the national security law, the freedom of speech, it's not there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lai came to Hong Kong at 12 years old, stowed away on a fishing boat, and worked his way up to found a clothing line and Hong Kong's largest pro-democracy newspaper. He now faces multiple charges that could lead to years in prison.

    Are you resigned, on a personal level, to being found guilty and spending a long time, even perhaps the rest of your life, in prison?

  • Jimmy Lai:

    I don't think about this, because I don't want to put the psychological burden on myself until the time comes.

    I'm not worried, just because, if my life is about myself, it will be meaningless. Only when I detach from myself and thinking of my life as about something bigger, and not about myself, that my life becomes meaningful. And that makes me going every day.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We last spoke to Lee Cheuk-Yan this January.

    How are you? How's the family?

  • Lee Cheuk-Yan:

    Oh, that's a tough time now. I think I should be in jail by the — by the middle of this year, I think.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lee is a prominent Hong Kong union organizer and longtime advocate for Chinese mainland democracy. We spoke on the day that more than 1,000 Hong Kong police arrested an entire generation of Beijing critics.

    They were accused of subversion for organizing an informal political primary.

  • Lee Cheuk-Yan:

    They take over and control everything. I think that's the — that's what their grand plan, is to frustrate the people to such an extent that either you immigrate to elsewhere. And if you stay on, you have to have the risk of being arrested.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Martin Lee and I last met in July 2019 outside a noisy Hong Kong train station.

  • Martin Lee:

    We don't have democracy under British law. But we have all the fruits of democracy, right, human rights, freedoms, and rule of law.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lee is considered the father of Hong Kong's Democratic movement. He's a lawyer who helped negotiate with Beijing the basic law, which was supposed to guarantee Hong Kong freedoms.

  • Martin Lee:

    Under the basic law, China is not allowed to interfere with Hong Kong affairs. So, China must accommodate Hong Kong as much as possible. It must not interfere with Hong Kong's affairs.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But Beijing now labels people like Martin a subversive and recently changed Hong Kong's election law to ensure politicians were — quote — "patriotic," as a state TV anchor said today.

  • Cao Yang (through translator):

    We are excluding the anti-China rabble-rousers from the governance framework, and will not let them stir up trouble or make chaos.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Those convicted today might be resigned to their fate, but the movement is not, says Hom.

  • Sharon Hom:

    Martin and Jimmy Lai and Lee Cheuk-Yan will to be a kind of inspiration for those of us who are outside and a reminder that, sometimes, there's a price to be paid, but that it's a long struggle.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A struggle that continues decades after its first generation launched it.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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