In this file photo taken on June 16, 2020, millionaire media tycoon Jimmy Lai poses during an interview with AFP at the Next Digital offices in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

Almost two years into China’s unprecedented crackdown on political life in Hong Kong, there would seem to be little room to tighten controls further.

The new norm includes suppression of political parties, jailing of pro-democracy activists, closures of dissident newspapers, loyalty oaths forced upon teachers, creation of special courts that put political dissent on trial, encouragement of vigilantism via “National Security Hotlines” to ferret out devious anti-China “foreign forces,” removal of pro-democracy literature from public libraries, and threats to pursue fugitive dissidents abroad to the ends of the Earth.

What else is left that’s needed to remold Hong Kong into a clone of subjugated metropolises on the Chinese mainland? Perhaps reminding Hongkongers that persecution is not a one-off event but can be carried on against anyone ad infinitum.

That seems to be the message behind the announcement of a new prosecution of Jimmy Lai, a former clothing manufacturer, media magnate and prominent pro-democracy activist.

Rolling court cases have kept him in legal jeopardy for two years. Last week, a Hong Kong magistrate ordered him to stand trial for disseminating “seditious” material. The alleged transgressions can be punished with up to life imprisonment.

It’s kind of a legally forced march.

The prolonged focus on Lai is a warning to anyone else who might dare to revive pro-democracy activity. The novelty of a possible life sentence is especially striking; Lai had already been jailed for alleged political crimes and corruption that had provided up to two years of prison time. Lai’s newspaper, Apple Daily, and his broadcast property were shut down by police. His wealth is sequestered. He is destitute.

Lai is far from the only Hong Kong activist to be prosecuted, apparently a key strategy in  Beijing’s effort to dominate the nominally self-ruling city. From June 2019 to January 2022, Hong Kong police detained 10,260 people who were involved in pro-democracy demonstrations, according to figures compiled by CitizenNews from Hong Kong police records.

At least 2,608 people have  been prosecuted and sentenced to as little as a month and up to two years. CitizenNews shut down in January, after the forced closure of other news outlets and arrests of editors.

More than 1,100 activists who helped organize or took part in pro-democracy demonstrations are in jail.

Chinese ruler Xi Jinping appears to be following a playbook for treating dissidents that’s similar to what President Vladimir Putin has in store for Russian dissidents.

Alexei Navalny, a Russian pro-democracy activist,  has endured a series of efforts to eliminate him. First came an effort in 2020 to poison him, a tactic used by Putin’s agents to erase opponents abroad.

Someone spiked a cup of tea served to Navalny on a flight from a Siberian province to Moscow. He survived, convalesced in Germany and returned to Russia last year, only to be arrested at the airport, charged with corruption and sentenced to two years in jail.

As in the Lai case, the short sentence was apparently deemed too light. Last March, as Russia was in the early stages of its invasion of Ukraine, a court sentenced Navalny to nine years in jail for fraud and contempt of court. He is currently languishing in a Siberian penal colony.

This week, a court rejected his appeal against the nine-year sentence

Democracy advocates complain that Lai’s case and hundreds of others breach the letter and spirit of the “one country, two systems” basis for the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China in 1997. The former colony was supposed to be nominally autonomous until 2047.

But China grew impatient with the slow pace of Hong Kong’s adaptation to future rule from Beijing, subject as it was to judicial wrangling and repetitive incidents of youthful protests.

A fire lit by protesters burns in the Sha Tin district of Hong Kong on October 1, 2019, as violent demonstrations take place in the streets of the city on the National Day holiday to mark the 70th anniversary of communist China’s founding. Photo: AFP / Isaac Lawrence

In 2014, Beijing issued a paper suggesting it needed to impose  “comprehensive jurisdiction” on Hong Kong.

Ideas on speeding up the process of adaptation appeared. One study suggested China’s National People’s Congress could decree a national-security law for Hong Kong detailing what would be considered seditious

In late summer of 2014, Beijing said that it would hand-pick a limited number of candidates for the territory’s first direct election of its chief executive in 2017. Massive protests ensued. People’s Daily described them as attempts to ignite “color revolutions” of the type that had broken out in Eastern Europe – including Ukraine.

Otherwise, Hong Kong democracy activists didn’t express great alarm. They felt protected from heavy-handed mainland control by the “one country, two systems” promise of autonomy until 2047, as well as the protections afforded by Hong Kong legal traditions and the strength of popular mobilization to deter autocratic moves.

Beijing also appeared confident that, by and large, Hong Kong citizens preferred steady, central-government-guided rule to the uncertainties of democratic rough-and-tumble apparent on the streets of their city.

The party was wrong. Municipal district elections held in 2019, usually serene affairs centered on local issues like traffic and trash collection, were overwhelmingly won by pro-democracy candidates. Beijing media responded either by ignoring the outcome, claiming fraud, or alleging a foreign hand behind the outcome.

A year later, Xi sprang into action. China imposed the restrictive security law. Police arrests of democracy activists began. Electoral rules for the Legislative Council were altered, dissidents barred from participating, and only one candidate was allowed to run for the city’s chief executive post.

In short, Hong Kong politics had been neutered.

Last week, there was a surprise addition to Beijing’s tightening grip. The sudden decision to put Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 90-year-old emeritus prelate of Hong Kong, on trial was announced. Soon after pro-democracy advocates contemplated the dour meaning of Jimmy Lai’s new prosecution as a sign of things to come, they viewed Zen’s coming court appearance as signifying Beijing’s confidence that it could handle Hong Kong as it pleased.

Cardinal Joseph Zen. Photo: Wikipedia

It perhaps should have come as no surprise. In 2018, Pope Francis had worked out a deal with Beijing to consult and share in the appointments of Chinese bishops. It was a deal that Zen condemned as naive and a danger to Catholics in China who had long defended their loyalty to the Vatican. Zen called the deal the “killing of the Church in China by those who should protect it.”

Zen appeared in a Hong Kong court on Tuesday, charged along with five associates for having failed to register relief funds to help with legal fees for arrested pro-democracy protesters.

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.