HK’s beleaguered pro-democracy camp shows signs of desperation

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A demonstrator protests the jailing of student leaders Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, in Hong Kong, August 20, 2017. Photo: Reuters / Tyrone Siu

Just when it appeared things couldn’t get any worse for Hong Kong’s champions of democracy, enter Howard Lam Tsz-kin.

Lam, a founding member of the Democratic Party in 1994, shocked the city earlier this month with the claim that he had been kidnapped, drugged and tortured by nefarious agents from mainland China. The problem for Lam, his party and their cause, is that the self-described victim’s revelations have become the subject of widespread skepticism and disbelief. 

Indeed, it is Lam who is now under arrest, charged with providing false information to the Hong Kong police, while his once-venerated party —not to mention the broader “pan-democratic” camp of which it remains a central part — faces a barrage of criticism and a loss of credibility for their unquestioning support of what could be a bald-faced fiction. 

Adding to the woes of the pan-democrats, the fresh new international face of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, 20-year-old student leader Joshua Wong Chi-fung, was sentenced to six months in jail last week for the leading role he played in the 2014 Occupy Central protests that crippled key sections of the city for nearly three months. Two of his lesser-known Occupy compatriots — Nathan Law Kwun-chung, 24, and Alex Chow Yong-kang, 27 — were also jailed, for eight and seven months respectively. 

No human rights group or eminent politico has spoken up for Lam, who reportedly has a history of depression and attempted suicide but whose bizarre story was nevertheless immediately and wholeheartedly given credence by – among many others – Wong and his fellow detainees

A lower court had initially sentenced Wong and Law to community service and Chow to a three-week suspended jail term for charging over security barriers into the forecourt of government headquarters in an incident that effectively launched the 79-day Occupy campaign nearly three years ago. But the justice department successfully challenged the sentences as too lenient in the Court of Appeal, resulting in the much tougher judgment unanimously handed down last Thursday by the court’s three judges.

The ruling puts an abrupt halt to the rising political careers of the three pro-democracy activists, who are now banned from seeking public office for the next five years due to their criminal records. It also follows on the heels of an earlier ruling last week, by the same court, that saw 13 demonstrators jailed for storming the Legislative Council (Legco), Hong Kong’s mini-parliament, in protest over a controversial development project. They, too, had earlier been given sentences of community service by a lower court. 

On September 19, the elder founders of the Occupy movement —Reverend Chu Yiu-ming and professors Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man — also go on trial. All three are charged with three counts of “causing a public nuisance,” with each charge carrying a maximum penalty of seven years in jail.  

In the ruling against Wong, Law and Chow, judge Wally Yeung Chun-kuen, the court’s vice president, cited an “unhealthy trend” toward civil disobedience in the city, writing of the three activists and their followers: “These people openly despise the rule of law. Not only do they refuse to admit their law-breaking behavior is wrong, they even see their acts as something to be proud of. This arrogant and self-righteous thinking will unfortunately affect some of our young people and result in attempts to disrupt public order.” 

Photos of Chinese Nobel rights activist Liu Xiaobo (L) and wife Liu Xia are left by protesters outside China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong. Photo: Reuters/Bobby Yip

Photos of rights activist Liu Xiaobo (left) and his wife Liu Xia were left by protesters outside China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong before the Nobel Peace Prize laureate’s death from liver cancer last month. Photo: Reuters / Bobby Yip

As the rhetoric of the city’s judges begins to march in step with that of government officials beholden to their Communist Party masters in Beijing, these are dark days for democracy in Hong Kong. The human rights organization Amnesty International has denounced the sentencing of the young Occupy leaders as a “vindictive pursuit” smacking of “payback by the authorities” while prominent public figures around the world have joined in a chorus of condemnation. 

“We should be proud of what those kids are doing,” stated Chis Patten, Hong Kong’s last colonial governor. 

In the US, Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida who co-chairs a congressional commission monitoring human rights in China, was quick to blast the ruling, as was Democrat Nancy Pelosi, minority leader of the House of Representatives. Rubio called the harsher sentences “shameful”; Pelosi said they should “shock the conscience of the world.” 

Notably, however, no human rights group or eminent politico has spoken up for Lam, who reportedly has a history of depression and attempted suicide but whose bizarre story was nevertheless immediately and wholeheartedly given credence by – among many others – Wong and his fellow detainees. 

Lam claims he was seized and forced into a van by Mandarin-speaking men in broad daylight on August 10 as he was shopping in the city’s busy Yau Ma Tei area on the Kowloon Peninsula. He further alleges that he was then knocked out with a drug he was forced to inhale and taken to an unknown location where he was interrogated and tortured with a staple gun. 

Lam has suggested that the CCTV figure identified as him is “a body double”— which, if true, would of course make his story even stranger than it already is

He says he woke up early the next morning on a beach in Sai Kung, in Hong Kong’s New Territories. From there he took a taxi to his home and contacted his colleagues in the Democratic Party, who arranged a press conference for him later in the day. No one called the police.

At that press conference, Lam — accompanied by Democratic Party Chairman Wu Chi-wai and party elders Albert Ho Chun-yan and Martin Lee Chu-ming — hiked up his shorts to reveal 21 staples in the shape of crucifixes(Lam is a Christian) on his legs and proceeded to tell his tale. His astonishing story included an account of a phone call he said he had received a day before his alleged kidnapping from someone claiming to be a Chinese national security agent. 

Lam said the caller warned him not to send a signed photograph of Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi to Liu Xia, the widow of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Liu Xiaobo, who died of liver cancer in detention last month after serving nine years of an 11-year prison sentence for advocating multi-party democracy in China.

Liu Xiaobo was known to be a fan of Messi. The whereabouts of Liu Xia, under house arrest for the past seven years, have been unknown since her husband’s death. 

It wasn’t until after this extraordinary meeting with reporters — which included the admission that his mother had washed the clothes he was wearing during his alleged abduction, thereby destroying potentially valuable DNA evidence — that Lam filed a police report and checked himself into a hospital to have the staples removed. 

Since then, CCTV footage examined by the investigative news agency FactWire has shown a man who appears to be Lam walking unmolested through the streets of Yau Ma Tei on the day he claims he was kidnapped. Additional footage gathered by police shows a man identified as Lam on that same day boarding a minibus to Sai Kung and, upon arrival, walking alone toward the sea. 

Lam has suggested that the CCTV figure identified as him is “a body double”— which, if true, would, of course, make his story even stranger than it already is. 

Democratic Party member Howard Lam shows off his injury at a news conference in Hong Kong, China August 11, 2017. Apple Daily via REUTERS

Howard Lam shows off injuries to his legs at a news conference on August 11, 2017. Photo: Apple Daily via Reuters

At this point, however, as doubts multiply over Lam’s account, the pan-democrats — and the Democratic Party in particular — find themselves under attack for so hastily embracing and promulgating his story and for parading a possibly sick and deluded man before the media and public. 

Clearly, pro-democracy politicians were eager to believe Lam because his harrowing yarn evokes memories of the five Hong Kong booksellers who were abducted and secretly interrogated by mainland security agents in 2015. 

In addition, it stirs fears of further human rights abuses in Hong Kong following the recently-agreed co-location arrangement between the central and Hong Kong governments. This allows Chinese immigration officials to impose mainland laws at the Hong Kong terminus of an expensive new express rail link to the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou. 

Finally, it comes in the wake of the ouster of six pan-democrats from Legco for staging anti-China protests while taking their oaths of office last October, those lost seats costing pro-democracy forces their veto power in the legislature. 

However Lam’s case plays out, one thing seems strikingly apparent about the dire state of Hong Kong’s democracy movement at present. With its youthful Occupy leaders now in jail and the movement’s older generation of organizers likely to follow, those who are still standing in free space are increasingly desperate in their quest to promote their own weakened agenda.

That desperation is clouding their judgment and only further damaging their cause. 

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