mobile-bannertablet-bannerdesktop-banner
Hong Kong Student Activists Attempt To Intercept Chinese Leader's Motorcade
Joshua Wong, secretary general of political party Demosistō, is subdued by police during an attempt to intercept the motorcade of top Chinese official Zhang Dejiang on May 19, 2016, in Hong Kong  Handout—Getty Images

Acquittal of Activists Over Anti-China Protests Renews Faith in Hong Kong Judiciary

Hong Kong's democratic movement is breathing a sigh of relief. On Tuesday morning, a magistrates' court acquitted Joshua Wong, a figurehead of the pro-democracy movement, and three other activists of obstruction charges stemming from protests in 2014. The decision has renewed faith in the city's judiciary, which has taken a beating from Beijing.

Wong's acquittal comes shortly after a visit to Hong Kong by the head of China's rubber-stamp legislature. As chair of the National People’s Congress, Zhang Dejiang is, in effect, China's top lawmaker. During his visit, he darkly hinted that local authorities should crack down on those calling for more political freedoms, and to “not appease acts that challenge the rule of law.”

Those comments follow remarks by Beijing’s top official in the territory, Zhang Xiaoming, who last year said that separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary “does not suit Hong Kong.” They also come in the wake of the detention in mainland China of five members of a Hong Kong–based publishing firm that produced books critical of Chinese Communist Party officials, in a case widely seen as a blatant violation of Hong Kong's autonomy by Beijing.

“China has no rule of law — it really is complete lawlessness,” Democratic Party chairperson Emily Lau tells TIME. She says that yesterday's verdict wasn't merely an exoneration of four youthful activists but a powerful testament to the vigor of the Hong Kong judiciary branch in the face of Chinese intimidation. “I certainly hope that [the mainland Chinese authorities] have learned a lesson and will leave Hong Kong alone.”

A social-science professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, David Zweig, tells TIME that the Wong verdict thwarted Beijing's demand that the judiciary “owe their loyalty to the state.” He says, “This is very important for the future of Hong Kong.”

79 Days That Shook Hong Kong

Pro-democracy demonstrators are sprayed with pepper spray during clashes with police officers during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstrators are sprayed with pepper spray during clashes with police officers during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.Xaume Olleros—AFP/Getty Images
Pro-democracy demonstrators are sprayed with pepper spray during clashes with police officers during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
A pro-democracy demonstrator gestures after police fired tear gas towards protesters near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Riot police use tear gas against protesters after thousands of people blocked a main road at the financial central district in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.
Policemen rest following pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014.
A protester raises his arms as police officers try to disperse the crowd near the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 29, 2014.
Protesters gather in the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 29, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators hold up their mobile phones during a protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
A protester sleeps on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex at sunrise on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters take part in a rally on a street outside of Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, delivers a speech as protesters block the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong Oct.1, 2014.
Protesters react as Joshua Wong (not pictured), leader of the student movement, speaks to the crowd outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong, Oct.1, 2014.
A protester holding an umbrella stands on the street close to the Hong Kong Government Complex on Oct.1, 2014 in Hong Kong.
A local resident breaks through police lines and attempts to reach the pro-democracy tent on Oct. 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
Policemen try to get a man to let go of a fence guarded by pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong on Oct. 3, 2014.
A pro-democracy protester sleeps on a concrete road divider on a street outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
The statue "Umbrella Man" by the Hong Kong artist known as Milk, is set up at a pro-democracy protest site next to the central government offices in Hong Kong on Oct. 5, 2014.
A pro-democracy protester uses bamboo to strengthen a barricade blocking a major road in Hong Kong on Oct. 13, 2014.
Demonstrators walk past notes hanging on a wall outside the Central Government Offices in the Admiralty business district in Hong Kong on Oct. 17, 2014.
Tents set up by pro-democracy protesters are seen in an occupied area outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong's Admiralty district, Nov. 12, 2014.
A young Hong Kong couple who did not give their names wear gas masks as they pose for a wedding photographer prior to their marriage next to the tents used by pro-deocracy demonstrators at the Admiralty protest site on Nov. 14, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Police face pro-democracy protesters on Nov. 19, 2014 outside the central government offices in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy activists join arms as they face off with police outside the Legislative Council building on Nov. 19, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Police officers disperse pro-democracy protesters outside the Legislative Council building after clashes with pro-democracy activists on Nov. 19, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy protesters climb up a wall as police officers disperse them outside the Legislative Council building after clashes with pro-democracy activists on Nov. 19, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy activists sleep outside the Legislative Council building after protesters clashed with police on Nov. 19, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Police arrest a pro-democracy protester on Lung Wo Road outside Hong Kong's Government complex on Nov. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong.
A young student studies in a makeshift classroom set up on a main road at a major pro-democracy protest site in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on Dec. 1, 2014.
A demonstrator is taken away by policemen, at an area previously blocked by pro-democracy supporters, outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Dec. 11, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters remove signs placed up during the past two months of protests from the area around the protest camp but leave intact the notice "We are dreamers" in the Admiralty in Hong Kong on Dec. 11, 2014.
Hong Kong police dismantle the remains of the pro-democracy protest camp in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on Dec. 11, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstrators are sprayed with pepper spray during clashes with police officers during a rally near the Ho
... VIEW MORE

Xaume Olleros—AFP/Getty Images
1 of 30

Michael Vidler, founder of the law firm that specializes in civil rights and which defended Wong, agrees. The judiciary, he says, “are judicial officers only according to the law. Long may that continue.”

Local conservative politician and tycoon Michael Tien also expresses relief. “The government is heavily influenced by China, so [the verdict] provides a check and balance,” he says, adding that t he judiciary is “alive and kicking and thriving.”

Wong — who appeared on the October 2014 cover of TIME’s international edition — faces another hearing later this month, when a verdict will be given on charges of “inciting an uprising.”

All products and services featured are based solely on editorial selection. TIME may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.