A Hong Kong court Thursday convicted Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee and five others of organizing or taking part in a pro-democracy protest. Mr. Lai, 72, is a billionaire who founded and publishes Apple Daily, which is a frequent critic of the Chinese Communist Party and among Hong Kong’s most popular news outlets. Mr. Lee is 82 and known as Hong Kong’s “father of democracy.”

Everyone in the former British colony understands the message being sent from Hong Kong’s new masters in Beijing: If we can get these men, we can get you too.

That’s especially true for the thousands of other Hong Kong citizens, far less well known, who were also arrested on charges relating to participating in such protests. The Aug. 18, 2019, protest at the center of this trial drew 1.7 million people, which is roughly a quarter of Hong Kong’s population, though police had not granted a permit.

The convictions are the flip side of the recent rewrite of Hong Kong’s election rules meant to ensure that only pro-Beijing “patriots” hold positions of power. This week the U.S. consul general to Hong Kong, Hanscom Smith, explained that the new rules “will not produce meaningful democratic results, and will be neither inclusive nor credible representations of the will of people in Hong Kong.”

For China that’s a feature, not a bug. The real crime of those convicted this week is that they took seriously China’s promise of autonomy for Hong Kong in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. They are being punished today simply for trying to make the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong honor that promise.

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