HONG KONG – Hong Kong protest leaders said Monday that police intend to charge at least nine activists, including students and academics, who helped organize or lead Hong Kong’s prodemocracy protests in 2014.
News of the move to charge the activists comes a day after a new Beijing-backed city leader was chosen to run the Asian financial hub and vowed to unify a divided Hong Kong.
The “Umbrella Movement” street occupations in late 2014 called for genuine democracy in the former British colony, and paralyzed key roads for 79 days.
Sociology professor Chan Kin-man, one of the core protest leaders, said Hong Kong police told him he will be charged with three crimes, including participating and inciting others to participate in “public nuisance.”
“I am already mentally prepared for this, but I am very worried about Hong Kong’s future,” Chan said.
It was not immediately clear why authorities waited so long to pursue these charges, and police have not yet responded to a request for comment.
The move on the prominent civil society leaders came just a day after a largely pro-Beijing committee of about 1,200 people picked Carrie Lam, a career civil servant, as the next leader of the city of 7.3 million people.
Lam told reporters that as the new leader-elect she will seek to unify Hong Kong, but will not intervene with prosecutions that are being carried out by the current administration of incumbent leader Leung Chun-ying.
“I made it very clear that I want to unite society and bridge the divide that has been causing us concern, but all these actions should not compromise the rule of law in Hong Kong, and also the independent prosecution process,” said Lam, who will take office July 1.
Chan, however, disputed this.
“The message is strong. Carrie Lam said she wanted to mend the society, but the message we got today is prosecution. I don’t see how the society’s cracks can be mended,” Chan said.
A lawmaker, Tanya Chan, said at least nine protest leaders received calls from the police notifying them of their charges. Another protest leader, University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai, confirmed by text he had been contacted by the police.
Nathan Law, the city’s youngest legislator who was also a core protest leader in 2014, also said two former student leaders received charges related to public nuisance.
Lam met with Leung on Monday, calling for a “smooth and effective” transition of power amidst heightened tensions.
“I have every confidence that we will have a very smooth transition,” said Lam, after shaking hands with Leung. She said unifying society will be her most urgent task, as well as improving the relationship between the executive branch of government and the legislature including opposition democrats.
The next few months will be critical for Leung and Lam, with Chinese President Xi Jinping expected to pay a visit on July 1 to celebrate Hong Kong’s 20th anniversary of the handover from British to Chinese rule, with large protests expected.
Part of the public mistrust toward Lam stems from her close working relationship with the staunchly pro-Beijing Leung, who ordered the firing of tear gas on prodemocracy protesters in 2014 during the “Occupy| civil disobedience movement.
Lam was Leung’s deputy as chief secretary over the past five years, and is known as a tough — though competent — administrator.
Some opposition politicians, however, remain skeptical, and said Lam needs to change tack to truly narrow differences.
“If Carrie Lam continues to maintain her attitude during the election period, the ignorance toward the reality and voices from the public, then I don’t think she will have an easy time at the Legislative Council,” said Alvin Yeung, head of the prodemocracy Civic Party and an elected lawmaker.
All of Hong Kong’s three other post-handover leaders have struggled to balance the demands of China’s stability-obsessed Communist Party leaders, with the wishes of many residents to preserve the global financial hub’s liberal values and rule of law that have long underpinned its economic success.
Political and social divisions have led to some legislative and policymaking paralysis and the stalling of major projects.
“She has been elected pretty much solely on the support of Beijing,” said political scientist Ma Ngok.
“If that’s the case, she might have a lot of debts that she has to repay to her supporters in Beijing.”
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