China has hit back at calls from the US, UK and EU for the release of prominent pro-democracy activists jailed last Friday over a peaceful, unauthorised assembly in 2019. Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong called the comments from other countries “unreasonable criticism” and “malicious smearing” in a statement on Sunday.

“The spokesperson from the Hong Kong office of the foreign ministry expressed strong discontent and objection,” the office of the Chinese foreign ministry in Hong Kong’s statement read, describing calls to release the activists “a double blasphemy and trampling of both the HKSAR and the international rule of law.”

Photo: May James/HKFP.

The spokesperson also accused the countries of undermining the city’s judicial independence and working against the Hong Kong people’s interests: “They hypocritically stated that they ‘will stand with the people of Hong Kong’, but ignore the mainstream public opinion of the HKSAR, and have repeatedly undermined the rule of law, prosperity and stability of the HKSAR. In fact, they stand against the people of Hong Kong.”

The spokesperson called on the countries to “stop harbouring and glorifying criminals” and to cease “interfering with Hong Kong and China’s internal affairs.”

Supporters outside court. Photo: Kelly Ho.

Five of the nine prominent pro-democracy figures found guilty of organising and participating in an unauthorised assembly on August 18, 2019 were handed sentences ranging from eight to 18 months last Friday. The founding member of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, the “Father of Democracy” Martin Lee, was given a suspended sentence of 11 months.

On the same day, pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai and veteran activist Lee Cheuk-yan were also sentenced over a separate unauthorised assembly on August 31 the same year. Both were immediately imprisoned and are serving combined sentences of 14 months.

Both demonstrations were held during months of city-wide, pro-democracy protests in 2019 sparked by a bill that would have exposed Hongkongers to mainland China’s opaque legal system.

Shortly after the sentencing, the Hong Kong’s Department of Justice said it was “appalled” at calls for the five’s immediate release. “Such demands, absurd and menacing as they are, are in blatant violation of international laws and basic principle of non-intervention,” the department said in a statement.

‘Ugly face of authoritarianism’

Beijing’s statement follows official criticism from the West of what it considers the erosion of fundamental human rights in Hong Kong.

“The lengthy imprisonment of some of the individuals for non-violent acts when exercising protected civic rights is a further sign of the continued diminution of the democratic space and erosion of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong,” a statement from the European Union read on Friday.

European Union Flags in Brussels. Photo: Wiktor Dabkowski, via Flickr.

“These developments in Hong Kong call into question China’s will to uphold its international commitments, undermine trust, and impact EU-China relations,” the spokesperson continued.

Also on Friday, UK Foreign Minister Dominic Raab called on Hong Kong authorities to stop prosecuting pro-democracy leaders.”The Hong Kong authorities’ decision to target leading pro-democracy figures for prosecution must stop. We will continue to stand together with the people of Hong Kong.” he tweeted.

The sentencing also drew criticism from prominent US and Canadian politicians. “Saddened and disturbed to see the sentences handed down to Martin Lee & other pro-democracy leaders for free and peaceful protest: another sign of Beijing’s assault on the rule of law,” US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also tweeted within hours after the sentencing.

“Locking up democratic voices of freedom will never silence the thirst for a free society: “The jailing of Jimmy Lai and Lee Cheuk-yan who have spent their lives speaking the truth and shedding light on the ugly face of authoritarianism is in itself criminal,” Canadian Senator Jim Munson said on Friday.

Hong Kong Free Press

Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.