Hong Kong prisons holding 1,788 Navalnys

The outrage over the death in custody of Putin's opponent should not make the world forget that the number of political prisoners in Hong Kong is on rise with Beijing insists on "non-interference in internal affairs". On the Beijing Spring online platform, a Chinese dissident draws parallels with the fate of Liu Xiaobo and Peng Ming who died in Chinese prisons.

Milan (AsiaNews/Agencies) – “This is Russia’s internal affair. I will not comment,” said the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson’s Office in response to a question from AFP about Alexei Navalny’s death in prison.

Such a response is not unexpected given the “no-limits friendship” between Russia and China asserted just two years ago in Beijing by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. But it is also a useful reminder that the treatment of political prisoners is "an internal affair" on which Beijing too does not tolerate intrusion.

This is true for mainland China, where a Hubei resident, Mao Shanchun, was arrested after he tried to set up a Chinese section of Human Rights Watch, citing rights recognised by the constitution of the People's Republic of China,

But it also applies to Hong Kong, where the fate of political prisoners is a major concern since the authorities cracked down on dissent following pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019.

The best-known case is that of Jimmy Lai, the publisher of the Apple Daily newspaper, which was shut down in 2021. He is currently on trial in which every word or act he did is being used as evidence of "foreign conspiracy" under a national security law.

Jimmy Lai, 76, has been in prison for more than three years. His son Sebastian has repeatedly raised concerns about his health, fearing that he might die behind bars.

Lay’s fate is but the tip of the iceberg, as hundreds of Navalnys are currently languishing in Hong Kong jails – 1,788 according to the latest figures (as of 8 February) by the Hong Kong Democracy Council.

But the number keeps rising. Twenty-four people were jailed in the first weeks of this year, while 483 were in the whole of 2023, and 376 in 2022.

Recently, Beijing Spring one of the best-known online platforms for Chinese dissidents in exile, directly compared Navalny's death to that of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who died of illness in a Chinese jail in 2017, and Peng Ming, a Christian activist sentenced to life imprisonment who died in prison in Hubei in 2016.

“Russia does not have the same ubiquitous control over the people as China,” reads the Beijing Spring article signed by Chen Weijian. But “Putin's murder of Navalny is the same as the CCP's murder of imprisoned dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo and Peng Ming.”

“In a Chinese society without elections, Xi Jinping claims that China's democracy is an ‘effective democracy’ that is superior to that of the West.

“In Russia, Putin has assassinated and jailed opposition leaders, banned opposition figures from running for election by so-called legal means, and thus held elections without opponents, claiming to be a democracy.” Yet, “what is fake is always fake, and a disguise cannot hide the truth.”