As Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam accompanies Xi Jinping on his visit to Shenzhen on Wednesday, she has a rare opportunity to do something to help a small group of very vulnerable Hong Kong citizens in grave danger. She could appeal directly and personally to China’s President to ease the plight of 12 Hong Kong people in a Shenzhen prison, and seek their release and safe return to Hong Kong.

Of course she and Xi will have many other things on their minds as they celebrate the 40th anniversary of the establishment of Shenzhen as a special economic zone, and discuss plans to expand and further integrate the “Greater Bay” Area. But a brief word in the ear of China’s leader while he is in a good mood could save these people from arbitrary detention, torture or worse.

carrie lam
Carrie Lam. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

It is almost two months since the 12 were arrested, allegedly in mainland Chinese waters, by the Chinese police, while attempting to flee by speedboat from Hong Kong to Taiwan. The fact that they had undertaken such a risky journey in some of the world’s most perilous waters in a ramshackle vessel illustrates their desperation. No matter how foolhardy their attempt may have been, they pose no threat to the Chinese state and should be treated with compassion.

At a minimum, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive should encourage Chinese authorities to ensure that the 12 are represented by lawyers of their choice, that they have regular access to those lawyers, that they can access proper medical care, that they be allowed contact with their families and that there is transparency about their well-being.

Of course the Chinese judicial system is harsh, repressive and far from independent. Due process and fair trial are alien concepts to the mainland authorities. But that is no reason to abandon the 12 to their fate – it is every reason to make representations to ensure that they are not mistreated and that, ultimately, they are released to Hong Kong.

hong kong 12
File Photo: StandNews.

This is Ms Lam’s one chance to defy her critics and show that she has some concern for the citizens she, at least nominally, governs. When Chris Patten served as the last British Governor of Hong Kong, he often emphasized that he wished to be Hong Kong’s representative to London and not London’s man in Hong Kong.

Since she became Chief Executive three years ago Ms Lam seems to have gone out of her way to prove her loyalty to Beijing, at the expense of Hong Kong citizens’ rights and interests. Now, having proven her loyalty, she could take this one step and speak up, privately, for the safety of the 12. If she fails to do so, the world must ask why.

Yet why should Xi care? Since becoming China’s top leader eight years ago he has intensified a crackdown on human rights to levels not seen since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, and returned China to Cultural Revolution-era repression. But, if his interest in China’s continued economic success suggests he has learned anything from the architect of the Shenzhen special economic zone, Deng Xiaoping, then he should also recall that it was Deng who formulated the concept of “One country, two systems”.

Xi Jinping China
Photo: RwandanGov. via Flickr.

Although that concept now lies in tatters, with Hong Kong’s freedoms, autonomy and rule of law dramatically undermined, he could give a symbolic nod to Deng by releasing the 12 to Hong Kong authorities.

Ms Lam has already done so much for China’s President – including actively promoting a national security law imposed by Beijing on the city she is supposed to lead before she had even seen the text. She postponed her own annual policy address to Hong Kong to be by Xi’s side in Shenzhen. The least she could do is have a word with him about the fate of these Hongkongers — and it would cost Xi nothing to mark the Shenzhen celebrations by freeing the 12 from the jail cell just down the road.

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Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist specialising in Asia. He is the author of six books, including Burma: A Nation at the Crossroads. He is also a former parliamentary candidate and co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission in the UK. Ben lived in Hong Kong from 1997-2002 and travels regularly to the region. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch.