Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Nine” Convicted on Public Nuisance Charges
Nine leading members of the “Umbrella Movement,” which organized the 79-day “Occupy Central” pro-democracy protests that riveted the prosperous coastal city of Hong Kong in late 2014, have been convicted by a Hong Kong district court on public nuisance charges. Additionally, the “Occupy trio” — sociology professor Chan Kin-man, 60; law professor Benny Tai, 54; and Baptist minister Rev. Chu Yiu-ming, 75 — were also found guilty of conspiring to cause public nuisance, on top of charges of inciting others to cause public nuisance.
The convictions come more than four years after Hong Kong protestors took to the streets to voice their dissent against the reforms to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive election approved by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC). The protest earned its name from protestors holding up umbrellas to protect themselves from the pepper spray fired by the police who attempted to disperse them.
The nine defendants — known as the “Umbrella Nine” — are the last group of demonstrators to be tried over the 2014 Hong Kong protests.
The trio of Chan Kin-man, Benny Tai, and Rev. Chu Yiu-ming founded the Occupy Central movement in 2013, which flourished after joining hands with the student-led “Umbrella movement” a year later. The protests thereafter were organized as a response to the NPCSC reforms of Hong Kong’s elections — reforms that, while granting universal suffrage in the election of the Chief Executive, also restricts candidates to those approved by a “broadly representative nominating committee” formed at Beijing’s behest, a formula that many believed to be a direct attack on the democratic process of Hong Kong’s electoral system.
After the verdict was announced at Tuesday’s hearing, the Umbrella Nine chanted slogans together alongside crowds of supporters outside of the district court building, echoing the ideals of those who took to the streets in civil disobedience four years ago. According to the Hong Kong Free Press, it is unlikely that they will learn much about their sentences until at least Wednesday, as defense lawyers submit pleas and arguments over mitigating the sentences. Each charge carries a prison term of up to seven years.
In his 268-page ruling, District Judge Johnny Chan cited countless hours of video footage of demonstrations and speeches, which included protestors like Tanya Chan instructing fellow protestors to “sit in a way that a male protestor should sit next to female protestors and they should link their arms for the purpose of increasing the cost of the police carrying them away” and claiming “the era of civil disobedience battle has already begun.”
While the activists also stated in their defense that they used protests as a last resort — in the tradition of using civil disobedience to inspire change — Judge Chan found that the protests caused an “unreasonable” disruption to public order, shutting down parts of the city for almost three months, and countered that “even if a defendant is prosecuted for an offense committed in the course of civil disobedience, civil disobedience is not a defense in the law.”
Furthermore, Chan noted in his ruling that organizers were “naïve to suggest” they could change Beijing’s mind “with a click of fingers” and quickly disperse a mass protest that had quickly grown to tens of thousands of people, should Beijing have offered concessions in their favor.
All nine pro-democracy activists have pleaded not guilty. The charges are seen by many pro-democracy proponents as a politically motivated attempt by Beijing to assert its authority over an otherwise independent Hong Kong government. Under the “one country, two systems” constitutional order first proposed by Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s and confirmed in the handover of Hong Kong from Britain back to China, Hong Kong is authorized to exercise a “high degree of autonomy” regarding executive, legislative, and judicial powers.
The differing responses to the news of the convictions of the “Umbrella Nine” are emblematic of a wider divide among Hongkongers over the ramifications of China’s increasing power and presence in the city. The future of the Occupy Central movement, the student-driven Umbrella movement, and the pro-democracy movement continues to remain uncertain. As Rev. Chu Yiu-ming offered during his defense at the trial, “In the Umbrella Movement, I am just a bell toller… In so doing, I hope that consciences may wake up, and together we work to save the day.”