Hong Kong Police Arrest at Least 14 Opposition Activists

(Bloomberg) — China is again taking steps to rein in Hong Kong’s democracy advocates, drawing fresh condemnation from the U.S. while also antagonizing protesters who paralyzed the city for much of last year.

The Beijing-backed Hong Kong government arrested 15 people on Saturday, including prominent pro-democracy activists and a lawmaker. The move came after China’s Liaison Office, Beijing’s representative in Hong Kong, asserted the right to intervene in the city’s affairs — prompting local authorities to put out a series of statements attempting to clarify the agency’s role.

“They’re trying to shut down Hong Kong’s dissent,” said Claudia Mo, an opposition legislator and former journalist. “They’re trying to escalate their scare tactics. It’s not going to work.”

The coronavirus outbreak has essentially brought a halt to protests in Hong Kong opposing China’s increasing control over the city, which saw hundreds of thousands of people hit the streets over months in demonstrations that sometimes turned violent. Beijing has used the pause to reassert its strength, including by naming a close aide to President Xi Jinping who was previously known for tearing crosses from the roofs of churches in China to oversee Hong Kong affairs.

The mainland’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, the top agency overseeing the financial hub, last week accused lawmakers of potentially violating their oaths by blocking action by the local Legislative Council — a statement that carries even more significance ahead of elections for the body known as LegCo set for September. Chief Executive Carrie Lam and other pro-establishment figures also said the opposition was endangering Hong Kong’s autonomy and livelihoods, echoing criticism from China.

The latest events in Hong Kong prompted an outcry in the U.S., where President Donald Trump — who is facing re-election this year — and his allies are increasingly blaming China for failing to stop the spread of Covid-19 around the world. U.S. lawmakers called on Trump to reassess Hong Kong’s independence from Beijing, while U.S. Attorney General William Barr “condemned the latest assault on the rule of law and the liberty of the people of Hong Kong.”

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo condemned the arrests, saying in a statement that “Beijing and its representatives in Hong Kong continue to take actions inconsistent with commitments made under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that include transparency, the rule of law,” and guarantees that Hong Kong will continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy.

The Hong Kong branch of China’s foreign ministry pushed back, saying “foreign countries have no right to intervene,” according to statements over the weekend that called out the U.S and U.K., which ran the former colony until handover in 1997.

“U.S. politicians ignore facts, distort the Sino-British joint declaration, use ‘transparency, rule of law and a high degree of autonomy’ as excuses to exonerate the anti-China activists,” according to a Chinese statement on Sunday. “The immoral behavior of colluding with the anti-China activists in Hong Kong will be condemned by the international community.”

‘Father of Democracy’

The arrested group comprises 12 men and two women aged between 24 and 81, police superintendent Lam Wing-ho said at a briefing on Saturday. Another arrest was made after the government briefing, said lawyers who circulated the list. Police say they were held on suspicion of organizing and participating in an unauthorized assembly in 2019, when months of pro-democracy protests upended life in the city.

Some of the older people taken into custody only played a peripheral role in last year’s “leaderless” protests. Those arrested included barrister Martin Lee, a former lawmaker nicknamed the “Father of Democracy” since he was a founder of the city’s flagship opposition Democratic Party, as well as media tycoon and prominent democracy advocate Jimmy Lai and legislator Leung Yiu-chung. Former lawmakers Albert Ho and Leung “Long Hair” Kwok-hung were also arrested, according to Mo, the opposition lawmaker.

The police action was connected to unauthorized assemblies on Aug. 18, Oct. 1 and Oct. 20 in Hong Kong Island and Kowloon last year, said Superintendent Lam. The operation is ongoing and police do not rule out further arrests, Lam said. Five of those arrested are alleged to also have been involved in unauthorized marches on Sept. 30 and Oct. 19.

Pandemic Crackdown

Hong Kong’s Security Bureau said the arrests were “based on evidence from investigations and strictly according to the laws in force,” according to a statement Saturday.

“In Hong Kong, everyone is equal before the law. No one is above it nor can anyone break it without facing consequences,” according to the statement. “The police will handle the case in a fair, just and impartial manner in accordance with the law.”

Across social media, politicians and netizens weighed in on the weekend arrests, with versions of the hashtag including “Stand With Hong Kong” attracting attention globally. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was among those who criticized the timing of the arrests, accusing Beijing and Hong Kong of making the move while the world’s focus is on combating the coronavirus epidemic.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other lawmakers urged Trump to “swiftly begin implementing” the Hong Kong Human Rights & Democracy Act. Passed in November, the act requires annual reviews of Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law to assess the extent to which China has chipped away at the city’s autonomy.

The U.K. government said it was concerned about the arrests and called for the authorities to “rebuild trust through a process of meaningful political dialogue.”

“The right to peaceful protest is fundamental to Hong Kong’s way of life and as such is protected in both the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law,” according to a statement from the U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office. “It is essential that any protests are conducted peacefully, and that the authorities avoid actions that inflame tensions.”

(Updates with China statement on opposition to global interference in second paragraph.)

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