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Hong Kong faces an important democracy test with the trial of the 'Hong Kong 47'


In Hong Kong, a court is expected to rule this week in one of the territory's most important political cases in years - the trial of the so-called Hong Kong 47. The 47 defendants are all members of the territory's once-vibrant pro-democracy political camp. They could face hefty prison terms for their roles in an informal poll four years ago that the government saw as a threat. NPR's John Ruwitch explains what's at stake.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hong Kong's legislature has, for years and by design, been stacked with delegates backed by the Beijing government. After huge anti-government protests in 2019, though, pro-democracy activists figured out a narrow path to a majority of seats. If they could pull it off, they could potentially force the city's then-unpopular chief executive, Carrie Lam, to resign. So as a first step, they planned an unofficial primary in July 2020 to pick candidates who had a shot at winning seats in an election scheduled for September. But there were warnings from the government, this one from Carrie Lam herself.


CARRIE LAM: It may fall into the category of subverting the state power, which is now one of the four types of offences under the new national security law.

RUWITCH: The primary went ahead anyway, with high turnout, but police soon rounded up and charged the organizers with conspiracy to commit subversion, a new crime under a new national security law that Beijing had imposed on the city. Benny Tai, a law professor who was one of the organizers, spoke after being released on bail after his arrest in early 2021.


BENNY TAI: (Speaking Cantonese).

RUWITCH: Hong Kong, he said, has entered a cold winter. This week, Tai will learn his fate. Tom Kellogg is executive director of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law.

TOM KELLOGG: This case matters tremendously in terms of human rights, rule of law and democracy in Hong Kong. You're talking about some of the leading lights of democratic reform in Hong Kong.

RUWITCH: In addition to Benny Tai, there are well-known activists on trial, like Joshua Wong, and dozens of elected lawmakers and district-level officials. Thirty-one have pleaded guilty, and 16 maintain their innocence. A lawyer for one of the 47, who declined to be identified because the verdicts were pending, said he expects most to be convicted. There may be one or two acquittals, though, he says, to give the impression that the court has been fair. Kellogg expects all of them to be found guilty and eventually handed heavy sentences, including possibly life behind bars for some.

KELLOGG: That in and of itself is a big deal, and it shows that Hong Kong's constitutional rights protections are no longer in effect, at least when it comes to national security cases.

RUWITCH: The Hong Kong and Beijing governments say the national security law restored order. But one exiled former Hong Kong lawmaker who was named as a co-conspirator in the case, has a different take. He declined to be identified for security reasons. Tens of thousands of people have fled the territory, he says. Its economy is sputtering and confidence is low. He says the heavy-handed national security crackdown is squarely to blame. And it continued this week with six people arrested for, quote, "inciting hatred of the government."

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.