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The Nikkei View

Beijing's crackdown on free speech in Hong Kong is unacceptable

Attempt to hold young democracy activists accountable for protests is absurd

Pro-democracy activists, from left, Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam and Agnes Chow arrive at court in Hong Kong on Nov. 23. All three were handed prison sentences.   © Reuters

Chinese authorities are unceasing in their efforts to crush the push for democracy by the people of Hong Kong. In particular, the suppression of young people, who risked their physical safety on the front lines of protests, is growing more intense. Democratic countries cannot tolerate unilateral measures to curtail Hong Kongers' freedoms of speech and assembly, which Beijing has promised to them with the city's "high degree of political autonomy" and "one country, two systems."

Accused of inciting unauthorized protests last summer, democracy activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam received prison sentences of 13 and a half months, 10 months and seven months, respectively.

The punishments were harsher than normal. The court suspended sentences or ruled community service in similar cases before when the accused plead guilty or is a first offender. It will become a major issue if authorities' goal is to impede the international reach of Wong or Chow.

More than 10,000 people were arrested in last year's demonstrations, including the three high-profile activists, and more than 2,200 have been indicted. Hong Kongers have come under greater pressure since Beijing bypassed the Hong Kong legislature this summer to enact a sweeping national security law for the city. 

Students' demand to "defend a free Hong Kong" is common sense, and not at all extreme in its substance. The "Umbrella Movement" that occupied highways and thoroughfares six years ago was focused on "true universal suffrage" to elect Hong Kong's top officials, a demand in line with Beijing's promises when Hong Kong was handed back to China.

Private citizens chose to join last summer's protests over a proposed legal amendment that would allow for suspects to be extradited to mainland China. The protests swelled to over a million people, turning into a historic, broad-based civic movement with no clear leaders. It is inconceivable to hold a few young people essentially accountable for such movement. 

Hong Kongers feared they would lose their civic freedoms and the city would come to resemble mainland China. The fact that pro-democracy candidates won more than 80% of seats in district council elections last November is a testament to this.

But the Chinese and Hong Kong governments have ignored the will of an overwhelming amount of the public. Hong Kong's "independent judiciary," once respected around the world, is also on shaky ground. The Dec. 3 imprisonment of Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon, China critic and founder of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, signals a growing clampdown on free speech is underway.

When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi came to Japan in November, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga expressed his concern over Hong Kong. Following the prison sentencing of the three young activists, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said: "We are increasingly concerned about the impact on freedom of speech." All countries that share democratic values, including Japan, the U.S, and countries in Europe, have a great responsibility to act together in answering the calls from the people of Hong Kong.

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