by HRF’s Center for Law & Democracy
Over the weekend, news that the Hong Kong government conducted a mass arrest of 15 pro-democracy politicians and activists swept across social media. Many in Hong Kong were outraged, especially because two prominent and well-respected figures, Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, were arrested for the first time. All of the individuals arrested were accused of organizing last year’s protest movement, despite the reality that the movement was a decentralized effort of millions of citizens.
The crackdown did not come as a surprise. Targeted harassment of protesters and pro-democracy businesses has continued since the beginning of this year, and all signs indicate that Beijing is quietly but aggressively pursuing efforts to stamp out the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong.
In January, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) replaced the head of the China Liaison Office following six months of widespread protests that garnered massive international support. This move was seen as a sign that Beijing was unsatisfied with the previous leadership’s handling of Hong Kong affairs, and desired a tougher stance on the “one country, two systems” interpretation.
When the coronavirus outbreak accelerated in late January, the CCP recognized an opportunity to consolidate power in Hong Kong without raising too much global awareness. For months, headlines about the pandemic have drowned out any significant mention of the CCP’s plan of action in Hong Kong. And in that time, the CCP has steadily been chipping away at pro-democracy efforts in the city.
In March, Hongkongers again saw signs of Beijing’s consolidation of power with a new chief justice, Andrew Cheung, who has had a history of ruling against pro-democracy activists. Talks of reviving Article 23 also started in March, with pro-Beijing lawmakers gathering signatures to outlaw the vaguely defined “sedition.” The pro-democracy camp has for years campaigned against its legislation, fearing that it would give the Hong Kong government easier access to persecute opposition.
The most alarming warning emerged just before the mass arrests on Saturday as the China Liaison Office effectively declared that it was no longer bound by the “one country, two systems” principle that guaranteed Hong Kong’s autonomy.
The China Liaison Office said that it was not restricted by Article 22 of the Hong Kong Basic Law, which states that any department set up by the CCP cannot interfere with Hong Kong’s internal affairs. Although interference from the CCP has already been frequent and persistent throughout the past two decades, Beijing’s action to make it official on paper sets a dangerous precedent to further gain complete control of the Hong Kong government. The Hong Kong government issued a press release confirming this reinterpretation of Article 22.
“When China’s offices in Hong Kong unprecedentedly announced that they are not restricted from interfering in local affairs, it is beyond any doubt the personal information of activists will be shared with the thousands of Chinese national security forces that are now stationed in the city to enforce future political persecution,” said Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong.
For those abroad who watched last year’s anti-extradition law protests in awe, it seems as if the protest movement in Hong Kong has quieted. But while in hiding from COVID-19, Hongkongers are still struggling to protect their freedoms, and the fight is only more difficult now.
The Hong Kong protests have been immensely successful, in part because the international community has rallied behind protesters to support their call for freedom. Using the distraction of the pandemic to its advantage, the CCP is now executing its long game of completely stripping Hong Kong of its remaining freedoms, including freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.
“When all countries are now busy combating coronavirus, China’s authoritarian regime is now clamping down on democracy movements in Hong Kong,” said Wong. “I call upon the world to keep watch on Beijing’s tyranny and stand with Hong Kong.”
Although we are all now preoccupied with COVID-19 challenges, it is more important than ever for the global community to support Hong Kong and raise awareness of the CCP’s calculated efforts to eliminate pro-democracy voices. If we do not stay vigilant to the CCP’s creeping aggression, this series of arrests will only be the beginning of mass imprisonment of dissidents and prisoners of conscience in Hong Kong.
Help HRF raise funds to launch our 2020 Hong Kong Desk, a project that raises China and Hong Kong’s government’s suppression of liberties to a supranational level by filing petitions and urgent appeals to UN Human Rights’ Council Special Procedures, produces research, reports and advocacy to maintain international attention on the subject, and helps hold perpetrators of human rights abuses in Hong Kong accountable.