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Last week, authorities in Hong Kong arrested 55 people in the largest crackdown on pro-democracy activists since Beijing imposed a new national security law on the region over the summer. Hong Kong police arrested organizers and candidates involved in the pro-democracy camp’s election primaries last July, accusing them of subversion.
The mass arrests, beginning last Wednesday, signal the Chinese regime’s attempt to snuff out pro-democratic forces in Hong Kong. In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the arrests an “outrage” and threatened sanctions against the officials involved.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is finding less room for resistance against the regime. Authorities are casting a wide net for dissidents: Last week’s round-up included both prominent politicians and candidates running for office for the first time. Moreover, a digital clampdown on the city has begun, as police seized devices from arrestees for data collection and officials blocked access to an anti-government website, reported The Washington Post.
Around 1,000 police officers were involved in last week’s arrests. They searched dozens of locations—including a public opinion research center that set up a website and app for the July primary election—and asked three pro-democracy media outlets to hand over information regarding the election. Police also froze $206,000 in funds connected with the primaries.
The primaries, which were unofficial and not endorsed by the government, were for the legislative election originally scheduled for September 2020. Pro-democracy candidates ran with the goal of claiming a majority in the 70-seat Hong Kong legislature that is now dominated by Beijing loyalists. Some participants had vowed, if elected, to veto the government’s annual budget, which would force Carrie Lam out from her position as chief executive. Over 600,000 citizens voted in the July primaries.
Authorities called the activists’ plan to veto the budget and oust Lam an act of subversion. Hong Kong Secretary for Security John Lee said the arrestees aimed to “paralyze” the government and plunge Hong Kong into an “abyss.” (The mass arrests also included those who did not agree to vetoing the budget.)
Under the national security law that criminalizes subversion, secession, terrorism, and foreign collusion, offenders could face up to life in prison.
In July, Lam postponed the legislative election by one year, claiming pandemic concerns. The current legislature is devoid of pro-democracy members, as Beijing disqualified opposition lawmakers in November, triggering mass resignations in protest.
Among those arrested last week: former lawmakers, incumbent district councilors, and an American lawyer. Benny Tai, an organizer of the primaries and co-organizer of the 2014 Occupy Central protests, was also arrested. Activist Joshua Wong, currently serving a 13½-month prison sentence for unlawful assembly, was transferred to a detention center for questioning.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state was among those condemning the arrests last Wednesday. “The sweeping arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators are an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights,” tweeted Antony Blinken. “The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”
By last Thursday evening, all arrestees had been released on bail, except for three, including Joshua Wong, who remain detained for other violations. One arrestee, former lawmaker Helena Wong, told media that authorities were trying to intimidate the Hong Kong people and discourage pro-democracy candidates from running in the upcoming legislative election, scheduled for September.
Referring to the political suppression, Benny Tai told media on Thursday, “Hong Kong has entered a chilly winter. The wind is blowing strong and cold, but I believe there are still many Hong Kongers who will use their own ways to continue walking against the wind.”
Members of the Democratic Party, the city’s largest opposition party, said at a press conference on Friday they remain committed to the pro-democracy ideology, but haven’t yet laid out plans for next moves.
Several Hong Kong activists, exiled in the United Kingdom, have called on foreign governments to halt investment deals with China and sanction officials responsible for the arrests. In a Washington Post op-ed, Nathan Law, an exiled former lawmaker, urged the international community to take a more proactive stance against the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party: “Constraining the CCP’s expansion should be a priority of all of the free world.”
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Earlier this month, the global bank HSBC froze the bank account of Good Neighbor North District Church, a Hong Kong church known for political activism, along with the accounts of the church’s pastor, Roy Chan, and his wife.
The Dec. 7 banking freezes, requested by Hong Kong police, are viewed by many as politically motivated. Pastor Chan is the founder of Protect the Children, a group that aided demonstrators during Hong Kong’s recently suppressed pro-democracy protests. Volunteers from the church were often on the front lines and sought to mediate between protesters and riot police.
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On Wednesday, all 19 pro-democracy members of Hong Kong’s legislature appeared before media to announce their resignation. The opposition members are leaving the Legislative Council in protest after Beijing on Wednesday authorized the Hong Kong government to disqualify and remove four pro-democracy legislators who were already barred from reelection.
Earlier in the day, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, China’s top legislative body, passed a resolution barring from Hong Kong’s legislature anyone who supports independence, refuses to recognize Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong, appeals to foreign forces to intervene in the region’s affairs, or endangers national security.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Wu Chi Wai called the Chinese government’s latest blow to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement “ruthless” and “extremely ridiculous.”
“The worst of all,” he said at Wednesday’s press conference, “the decision made by the central government seems to say that all the separation of powers will be taken away and all the power will be centralized in [Hong Kong’s] chief executive,” which contradicts the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.
The mass resignations come as Beijing intensifies a crackdown on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests by imposing the sweeping national security law on June 30. The law that criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and foreign collusion would also quash political dissent in the former British colony.
“It seems like those in power cannot tolerate opposition anymore,” said Dennis Kwok, one of the four disqualified legislators, at a press conference on Monday in anticipation of Beijing’s actions. “They are adamant in getting rid of all democrats, not simply from [the legislature], it seems from the whole of Hong Kong, even.”
Without the 19 pro-democracy members in the 70-seat legislature, only two independent lawmakers remain. Others are pro-Beijing. Half of the council’s seats are reserved for typically pro-Beijing special interests, while the other half are filled by direct elections.
The current council is an interim legislature, as Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam postponed the September legislative election by one year, claiming coronavirus concerns. Beijing allowed lawmakers from the previous term to stay on, although pro-democracy members Eddie Chu and Ray Chan had boycotted the “appointed legislature.”
Other opposition members had remained in the council to do all they could by rules of procedure to keep the regime in check.
The Legislative Council upheaval on Wednesday follows the arrests of seven current and former pro-democracy legislators and one legislative aide earlier this month. Police arrested them for violating a council ordinance during a May fracas inside the legislative chambers.
The May 8 Legislative Council meeting had descended into chaos after pro-Beijing legislator Starry Lee took the chairman’s seat: Opposition members shouted at her and held up placards protesting her authority to preside over a meeting that would pass controversial bills. Pro-establishment members countered with placards of their own, accusing the pro-democracy members of violating their oaths.
As security guards surrounded Lee, rival lawmakers scuffled. Eddie Chu climbed a wall trying to bypass a human barricade. Pro-Beijing lawmaker Kwok Wai Keung dragged Ray Chan by the collar to the floor. Lee ordered the removal of opposition members, and security guards carried Chu and Chan out by their limbs.
Opposition members decried the arrests as arbitrary, since no pro-Beijing legislators were similarly arrested. Authorities have charged the pro-democracy lawmakers with offenses of contempt and interference that carry fines of $1,285 and 12 months in prison. Their court hearing will take place Feb. 11.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the arrests as a political abuse of law enforcement: “The Hong Kong government’s harassment and intimidation of pro-democracy representatives and attempts to stifle dissent are stark examples of its ongoing complicity with the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party.” On Monday, the U.S. State Department sanctioned four top Chinese and Hong Kong officials involved in enforcing the national security law.
At Wednesday’s press conference, Wu said, “We know that to fight for democracy from totalitarianism has always been a very long road, but we will never let this kind of persecution and pressure defeat us.”