Suddenly, more than a dozen veteran Hong Kong democratic movement titans were arrested on Saturday April 18 for their role in large-scale protests last year.
As the government detains opposition figures more and more frequently – including a disturbing arrest at midnight of a local councilor accused of sedition – the mass arrest of the weekend is of a scale and unprecedented importance, and marks a major step forward in China’s crackdown on the city. opposition movement.
The arrests took place as China was just beginning to emerge from its first wave of the coronavirus epidemic, newly triumphant over its success in containing the epidemic quickly as countries around the world – including western democracies – continue to struggle with increasing deaths and overwhelmed medical systems.
Among the 15 arrested were media mogul Jimmy Lai, whose daily Apple Daily is sharp in his disdain for the Chinese Communist Party; heavyweight lawyers Margaret Ng and Martin Lee, and former “Long Hair” opposition lawmakers Leung Kwok-hung, Albert Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan and Au Nok-hin, who was recently convicted of assaulted a police officer for speaking too loudly through a megaphone. They were all arrested “in connection with organizing and participating in unauthorized rallies,” said the government’s security office.
Martin Lee, 81, widely known as the “father of democracy in Hong Kong,” said he was proud to finally be an accused and to join the ranks of those charged.
The arrests quickly sparked widespread international reprimand, including from the US Attorney General William Barr, President of the Democratic Chamber Nancy Pelosi, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Bidenand secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne specifically called on China to use the coronavirus crisis as a cover, as it did Jim McGovern, American Democrat and Chairman of the Congress Executive Committee on China. The European Union spokesman for foreign affairs said the arrests “require careful consideration. ”
The Hong Kong government has said that the arrests were “not politically motivated” and that they were carried out in strict accordance with the law. In the past month, however, Beijing has stepped up calls for a controversial national security law in Hong Kong, which critics say will further erode the city’s civil liberties. The central government has also claimed full authority to interfere in local Hong Kong affairs – something the city’s mini-constitution expressly prohibits – and the Hong Kong government supported this claim, but not without a series embarrassing flip flops.
In recent weeks, China has intensified its aggressive posture on the diplomatic scene in an attempt to refocus the coronavirus narrative of its faux pas and its initial cover-ups to its success in the fight against the disease, which it has registered to the superiority of the Chinese political system. His argument for the strength of his authoritarian model was reinforced by the clumsy epidemic responses of Western democracies.
China seems to be taking advantage of the pandemic as a rare opportunity to make aggressive gains on several fronts, betting that it will face a significant minimal setback from foreign governments distracted by their own epidemic response. Chinese government officials and academics have already defined the coronavirus crisis as a chance to advance overseas expansion of its businesses. China has also recently renewed its activities in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.
Chinese diplomats also strike while foreign governments find themselves on their hind legs. The Chinese Embassy in France endorsed the view that western governments let elderly residents die in nursing homes, for example, while the ambassador to Botswana dismissed reports that Africans were victims of discrimination in China by accusing the media of making “unilateral allegations”. Countries around the world, however, have summoned Chinese diplomats to protest their rhetoric.
The challenge for foreign governments will be to identify and respond adequately to China’s maneuvers, even if an internal health crisis continues to occur. In particular, the arrests now present a concrete scenario in the United States to assess how to apply the Hong Kong law on human rights and democracy, adopted last November. The law requires the government to assess whether Hong Kong should continue to enjoy special trade and economic advantages in the United States, such as being sheltered from tariffs on Chinese products.
Hong Kong appears to have weathered the first wave of the coronavirus epidemic with relative success, but there are concerns that the government will use public health restrictions to suppress protests after the pandemic has subsided. There have already been cases of what looks like selective application of health rules to target the protest movement.
Although large-scale protests have paused due to the pandemic, the resistance movement is by no means finished because people’s grievances are still not being addressed. The mass arrests only deepen them. A number of crucial dates are looming on the horizon: the vigil of Tiananmen Square on June 4; the first anniversary of the million-person march last June and the annual July 1 march. An increase in public anger seems likely, in whatever form it may take in the post-pandemic world of Hong Kong.