Thousands of Hong Kong’s legal professionals have staged a march to put pressure on the city’s Department of Justice over what they say are political prosecutions of protesters, after China said the territory was facing its worst crisis since it was handed back from Britain in 1997.
In the scorching midday heat about 3,000 people gathered in the heart of Hong Kong’s financial district to call on the justice secretary, Teresa Cheng, to answer allegations of politically motivated prosecution, with dozens of protesters held in police stations across the semi-autonomous city.
“We see there has been selective prosecution,” said a 29-year-old litigator who would only give her name as JL.
Referring to attacks on demonstrators by suspected triads, she said: “The [lack of prosecutions over the] white shirt attack in Yuen Long, compared to the speed of charging so-called rioters, there’s a difference in how police handle the case.”
JL was part of the thick line of legal professionals dressed sombrely in black snaking 200 metres uphill from the court of final appeals to the offices of the justice department.
It is rare for the city’s legal sector to take part in protests. “People are sceptical,” she said. “We need to restore that trust [of the legal sector] in society and that’s why we’re here today.”
“All we want is justice, all we want is consistency, we don’t want to see thugs get away while the best of our youth get prosecuted,” said Kevin Yam, a barrister.
“We ask for justice, we ask for consistency, we ask for proper record keeping. Nothing more, nothing less.”
Yam said those trying to get information from the DOJ were being told verbally, and questioned why they were not being provided with documentation. “If we said that I think we’d be in trouble, don’t you think?”
The DOJ issued a statement denying the accusations, saying prosecutors were discharging their “duties fairly and without prejudice or favour”.
Hong Kong is in its ninth week of consecutive mass protests, with police stating on Tuesday that they fired 800 grenades of teargas the previous day as they tried to disperse demonstrations in at least seven districts.
The protests began in opposition to a now-suspended extradition law, which would have allowed suspects to be tried in mainland Chinese courts. They have now broadened, turning into a backlash against the government, fuelled by many residents’ fears of eroding freedoms under the tightening control of China’s Communist party.
Zhang Xiaoming, one of the most senior Chinese officials overseeing Hong Kong affairs, spoke about the issue at a meeting set up in Shenzhen to discuss the crisis: “The central government is highly concerned about Hong Kong’s situation, and trying to study, make decisions and arrangements from a strategic and across-the-board level,” Zhang said. “Hong Kong is facing the most serious situation since its return to China.”
At a press conference on Tuesday, Yang Guang, a spokesman for the Hong Kong and Macau affairs office of the Chinese government, said: “Don’t misjudge the situation or take restraint as a sign of weakness … don’t underestimate the firm resolve and tremendous power by the central government and people across China to maintain prosperity and stability in Hong Kong.”
Australia on Wednesday joined Ireland, the UK, and Japan in issuing Hong Kong travel warnings. More than 5 million people visited Hong Kong in June this year, of which roughly 80% were from mainland China. Still, there are varying reports about whether tourism has been affected by the protests.
Police said they arrested 148 people in connection with Monday’s protests, and another nine on Tuesday night. A total of 589 people have been arrested in connection to the protests in the past two months.
Hong Kong’s legal system, which was inherited from the British, and the prospect of being extradited to face authoritarian justice in China, was at the heart of the protests when they first broke out earlier this year.
Under the Sino-British joint declaration, Hong Kong should maintain a “high degree of autonomy” through an independent judiciary, a free press and an open market economy, a framework known as “one country, two systems”.
But, over the years, Chinese influence over Hong Kong has grown, with its government and legislature tilted in favour of Beijing. Education, publishing and the media have all come under pressure.