Hong Kong's 'Umbrella Movement' leaders avoid jail time

Three leaders of a rally that sparked huge prodemocracy street protests in 2014 in Hong Kong have been sentenced to community service on Monday.

Vincent Yu/AP
Three Hong Kong student protest leaders (from l.) Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow walk out from a magistrate's court in Hong Kong, Monday.

A magistrate spared three student leaders who set off the "Umbrella Movement" in Hong Kong in 2014 jail time Monday on the grounds that the sit-in, one of the greatest challenges to Beijing since the British colony came under its control in 1997, was a nonviolent political statement.

"The court believes the three defendants are expressing their views and demands genuinely out of their political beliefs or their concern for society," said district court judge June Cheung. "Their aim and motive is not for their own interest or to hurt other people."

Ms. Cheung's ruling shows how segments of Hong Kong continue to question its relationship with Beijing as much of the city demands more democratic representation and independence.

"The authorities should consider why so many people are raising these options," Alex Chow, one of the three student leaders, said outside the court. "What is the motivation, stance and reasons behind them?"

Mr. Chow added that the judge's statement carried a "timely warning" for authorities at a time when more people have demanded independence from China, according to Reuters.

Chow, who was found guilty of inciting others to join an unlawful assembly, was initially sentenced to 120 hours of community service. Because he is set to start a yearlong master’s program at the London School of Economics in September, the judge sentenced him to three weeks in prison, which she suspended for a year. 

Joshua Wong, the most high-profile leader of the movement, received 120 hours of community service for participating in unlawful assembly; Nathan Law received 80 hours for the same conviction.

In 2014, Mr. Wong, 17 years old at the time, and others stormed a fenced-off area in front of Hong Kong's "Civic Square" to protest what they said were restricted elections. The sit-in Wong and others organized led to a nightlong standoff with authorities, which ignited a pro-democracy movement across Hong Kong. For 79 days, protesters blocked major thoroughfares throughout the city.

Peter Ford wrote for The Christian Science Monitor at the time that "the future of China could depend on a bunch of kids, some of them so young they need their parents' permission to stay out late to demonstrate."

"If the pro-democracy protesters now blocking the streets of Hong Kong end up winning their demand for a more open electoral system, they will have forced the Chinese Communist Party to back down – an achievement nobody else has managed since the 1949 revolution put Mao Zedong in power," wrote Mr. Ford.

Many of those "kids," Francis Moriarty wrote for the Monitor 40 days into the movement, promoted recycling, urban gardening, arts and culture.

In short, they are doing things they have criticized the government for not doing. For the students at Admiralty, the government’s indifference toward core values like Hong Kong’s identity has led the city to policies they abhor, like the destruction of historical buildings, a high-speed rail link with mainland China, and the attempt to introduce so-called patriotic “national education” in schools.

Others in Hong Kong's gritty neighborhood of Mongkok spread a different message.

Here, the protesters match Mongkok’s tough surroundings. The men are older, rougher, and tanner than the young bookworms on the other side of the harbor. Elderly women join the protest with clenched fists next to temples of traditional Chinese deities and a makeshift chapel with a large picture of Jesus.

Many protesters here represent the generations who fled Communist China to the safety of Hong Kong, and they are emerging to speak of the past and to voice feelings they’ve suppressed for decades.

At the time of the "Occupy Central" movement, the Chinese government did not indicate it planned to rethink how it will run the next elections for Hong Kong's chief executive in 2017. The government’s plan has "unshakeable legal status and effectiveness," said an editorial in People’s Daily, the official organ of the ruling Communist Party.

"That plan offers universal suffrage to Hong Kong voters for the first time, but it enshrines procedures to ensure that only candidates enjoying Beijing’s blessing could run for election," wrote Mr. Ford. 

Now, Mr. Law and other activists will seek to enter politics in an upcoming legislative election to further expose different strains in the city of 7.2 million, writes Reuters. 

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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