Posted:  Dec. 6, 2010


(A January 3, 2011 update on the Zhao Lianhai case is appended to this December 6, 2010 post)  

Hong Kong’s democracy movement may be faction-ridden and unable to agree on what kind of universal suffrage elections it wants or where these might lead.  But one ideal is valued above all others and nothing else can produce the same degree of unity.  Everyone understands what the freedom of political expression means because examples are routinely reported by the local media with greater clarity than any political reform proposal has been able to inspire.  These allow Hong Kongers to appreciate what they have that their mainland compatriots do not in terms of a citizen’s ability to think, act, read, write, publish, associate, and demonstrate without fear of official retribution.

Civil liberties specifically and human rights in general have actually been the  mainstay of Hong Kong’s democracy advocates since 1989, when the violent suppression of China’s own 1980s democracy movement provided a reminder Hong Kong still commemorates every year, about the political dangers of communist party rule.  The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, organized in 1989, resisted pressure by Hong Kong’s new post-1997 administration to “lay aside” the issue of 1989 and abandon the annual event. Although Alliance leaders have long since gone their separate ways over the complicated issue of electoral reform, they (mostly) all still gather on June 4, in an act of open defiance, to defend human rights in China and the right to express that defense in Hong Kong.


Alliance activists also set up a support network for their mainland Chinese counterparts and have maintained it in one form or another since1989 — undeterred by the costly dissident and subversive labels that Beijing has attached to their names and activities as a result.  This work has gained greater prominence since the formation in January 2007 of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group.  Founded by the Democratic Party’s current chairman, Albert Ho, and other Hong Kong human rights lawyers, the group is devoted to publicizing and supporting the activities of human rights defenders in China (           

In this way, it has been possible for Hong Kong activists to keep alive their old 1990s dream of helping to democratize China, even as they now struggle to keep the dream alive against countervailing mainland pressures in Hong Kong itself.  At a day-long Saturday seminar on November 27, Albert Ho spoke of Hong Kong’s ongoing effort to maintain its own civil liberties in the face of those pressures. He called it essential not just for Hong Kong’s democratization “but for China as well.”  And in the latter respect he could finally claim an unmistakable if modest measure of progress.

As DP chairman, Ho has been widely criticized by pan-democrats for the compromise on electoral reform he brokered with Beijing last June.   In contrast, his work as a human rights defender is, among democrats, universally admired.  And although they have yet to admit as much in so many words, the general community-wide support that cause enjoys has now inspired even pro-Beijing partisans to speak out as well.  In the past, individual loyalist politicians claim to have raised questions in private with Beijing officials over individual cases.   But now for the first time — and knowing that Beijing regards such open defiance as subversive of its authority — a prominent group has spoken out in public for all to see and hear.

ZHAO LIANHAI:  Hong Kong Pressure at Work

The case that has provoked this unprecedented response among pro-Beijing partisans is that of mainland activist Zhao Lianhai, whose then three-year-old son was a victim in the 2008 tainted milk scandal.   The issue itself is old news.  Thousands of youngsters suffered kidney damage and a few died after producers added the chemical melamine to milk as a means of masking low protein test counts.  The practice was widely publicized in China, after the fact, and officially condemned.  Punishments were handed down, compensation was paid to victims, the children received medical treatment, and like Zhao’s son most recovered.  Case closed.  But not for Zhao who would not let the matter rest.

He continued to protest and what was worse, in official mainland eyes, encouraged others to do likewise.  According to various accounts, between October 2008 and September 2009, he helped set up a parents support group, organized a few small protests, shouted slogans, spoke to journalists, and tried to help a victim in another unrelated case.  He was, in other words, a troublemaker. But by Hong Kong standards, wrote one conservative sympathizer, his efforts were no more than “garden-variety protest activities peaceful in the extreme” (South China Morning Post, Nov. 27).

Zhao was arrested in November 2009 and tried in March this year, with sentencing delayed until November 10, when his two-and-a-half-year prison term was announced.  Hong Kong legal rights activists had been monitoring the case along with many others but it was the long-delayed heavy sentence that set off a sudden storm of local protest while the appeals process formalities were underway.  Under Chinese law, such an offense can bring up to five years imprisonment but sentences of only a few months are now the norm and Zhao had already been behind bars for a year.

Responding to the outcry, journalists from the Hong Kong branch of the Chinese state-run New China News Agency asked for clarification from the Daxing District People’s Court in Beijing and reported the result on November 21.  This was unprecedented in timing since the final appeals court decision had not yet been announced.  The report explained that the court had been presented with ample evidence of Zhao’s crimes and summarized the case against him.  It followed that the verdict of “inciting social disorder” was justified and incidents of similar behavior dating back to the 1990s were cited as proof of his disruptive character (Wen Wei Po, Nov. 22).

         Angry Hong Kong protesters had only just begun to appreciate the significance of this small gesture of recognition when the news agency, on November 22, reported another.  It was the Chinese equivalent of a plea bargain.  Zhao Lianhai had admitted his guilt, accepted the verdict, and would not appeal.  In return, he was allowed to apply for “medical parole”  (Wen Wei Po, Nov. 23).  

This face-saving solution (Zhao reportedly has no health problems) is frequently adopted by a legal system that seems unable as yet to reform itself but is under increasing homegrown and external pressure to try.  Specifically, Zhao’s Chinese lawyers credited Hong Kong protests and petitions  as being the key factor leading to the “plea bargain.”   According to the rules, prisoners must have served one-third of their sentences to qualify for medical parole.  Counting time already served, Zhao is now eligible for immediate release, although the court can take as long as it likes to approve the parole application.

Why this particular case provoked so much anger is unclear.  Perhaps because it involved the now sensitive issue of food safety and because small children were the victims, Zhao’s defiance as a concerned father was seen as justified and the harsh sentence as a particularly perverse miscarriage of justice.  Or perhaps Hong Kong conservatives and its pro-Beijing loyalists joined the protest over Zhao’s sentence because campaigning has already begun here for local elections in 2011 and 2012, and because the political community remains on high alert after last year’s political reform controversy, and because pro-government establishmentarians remain on the defensive when confronted with clear manifestations of Hong Kong’s most valued freedom-of-political-expression ideal.  A few months ago, for example, these considerations led loyalist politicians to advise the Hong Kong government against trying to reintroduce its controversial national political security legislation during the coming year.

In any case, Hong Kong’s 36-member delegation to the National Peoples Congress is made up entirely of loyalists and conservatives, 28 of whom called for Zhao’s immediate release.  The request was in the form of a petition letter they sent to the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing.  Several delegates also spoke out individually and it was the protest from this quarter that local commentators say must have convinced Beijing to reconsider the political costs of legalistic intransigence.

Among Hong Kong’s Legislative Councilors, however, it was left to pan-democrats to lead the debate on November 17.  They also sponsored a petition letter of their own that most other legislators refused to sign, although many of these expressed sympathy for Zhao in other ways.  Democrats and the others remain divided in victory as well.   Conservatives and loyalists by and large accept medical parole as a reasonable compromise solution.  Democrats regard it as a continuing violation of Zhao’s right to a fair trial, since he had to accept the guilty verdict and abandon the appeals process attempt to clear his record of the conviction.

Update as of January 3, 2011:   According to his lawyers who spoke with him by phone on December 31,  Zhao Lianhai has in fact been relesed from prison and is staying at an undisclosed hospital in Beijing.  The conditions of his release on medical parole are not known but from comments made to his lawyers and left on his website,  Zhao appears to have struck a bargain.  Accordingly, in return for the reduced sentence he is now admitting that his protest actions were too confrontational, which he had not done before.

The deal also included a backhanded recognition by Beijing of Hong Kong’s role in the affair.  Wang Guangya, the top government official responsible for Hong Kong, used his December 29 press conference in Beijing to warn Hong Kongers against meddling in mainland matters, when reporters asked about the Zhao case.  He said the mainland has an independent judiciary with which there should be no interference.   Local pro-democracy activists naturally dismissed the warning.   But so too did the usually passive pro-Beijing members of Hong Kong’s National People’s Congress delegation who had also protested the severity of Zhao’s sentence.  In response to Wang’s admonition, they pushed back saying that what they had done was not interference and besides, it was their duty to concern themselves with mainland affairs including judicial matters!

(Next:  the case of Liu Xiaobo)

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