Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 73, 23 April 2020

Hong Kong: 15 prominent pro-democracy activists arrested during the pandemic
N Jayaram

In the news

On 18 April, 15 prominent pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong were arrested, sending shockwaves not only within Hong Kong and among China-watchers but also incurring strong reactions across the globe.

The arrests came even as Hong Kong, China and much of the world have been in lockdown in view of the COVID-19 pandemic. The spectacular pro-democracy upsurge in Hong Kong (that was there since June 2019) had already been suspended in view of the COVID scare.

Issues at large

Those arrested were charged with having taken part in "unlawful assemblies" as part of the protests which was sparked by an extradition bill. Now-abandoned, the bill was widely viewed as a major assault on the rule of law and caving into Beijing's diktat.

The 15 includes some of the most respected and prominent figures in Hong Kong's political life. Martin Lee Chu-ming, one of the senior-most barristers, has been campaigning for democracy and human rights since the 1980s. He had, in fact briefly been one of the only two pro-democracy figures on the committee set up in the late 1980s to draft the 'Basic Law.' The 'Basic Law' is Hong Kong's mini-constitution guiding the former British-ruled territory's governance after its handover to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee is another barrister and former legislator who has been campaigning for democracy for decades. Jimmy Lai Chee-Ying is an entrepreneur and founder of a media company that has cast its lot with the democracy camp. Others include trade unionists and activists who have long been thorns in the side of the Hong Kong establishment, opposing the tycoon-government nexus.

In perspective

Prominent Western politicians including Hong Kong's last British governor Chris Patten immediately denounced the latest action, as did the International Bar Association, International Commission of Jurists, Human Rights Watch and other bodies. 

Patten and Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch saw in it another step towards burying the "one-country, two-systems" formula that had been promised to Hong Kong prior to the handover.

Although it may be tempting to dismiss the 15 arrested as of yesterday's activists, the fact that the regime moved on them after all these months shows the clout they command. The actions are certain to be seen as a red rag by the pro-democracy camp.

It is yet another cynical display of raw power on the part of Xi Jinping regime in Beijing. The way it has been dealing with the Turkic peoples in Xinjiang, the COVID-19 crisis and Hong Kong, underline its willingness to ride roughshod over established processes in having its way. 

N Jayaram is an independent journalist currently based in Bangalore after having worked with the Press Trust of India news agency for 15 years, including as its Beijing correspondent (1988-94) and with Agence France-Presse news agency's Asia-Pacific operations in Hong Kong for 11 years until 2006, when he took time off to study human rights law (LLMHR) at the University of Hong Kong. 


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