On April 18, Hong Kong police arrested 15 prominent democracy leaders on what prosecutors in most rule-of-law nations would term “stale charges” of organizing and participating in three illegal assemblies in August and October last year. In Canada, for example, minor charges such as these must be laid within six months of the alleged offense.
The arrested included 81-year-old Martin Lee (李柱銘), founder of the Democratic Party, who helped negotiate the Basic Law in 1984.
Lee, often called the “Father of Democracy” in Hong Kong, said after he was released on bail that he felt “proud to walk the road of democracy with the outstanding youths in Hong Kong.”
The arrests occurred just hours after Beijing’s senior representative office in Hong Kong declared that the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office is “authorized by the central authorities to handle Hong Kong affairs.”
Pro-democracy lawmakers are convinced that the arrests are intended to silence democrats after Chinese officials told Hong Kong to enact national security legislation.
Hong Kong Legislator Claudia Mo (毛孟靜) said that the party-state in Beijing is seeking to “terrorize Hong Kong opposition” ahead of a legislative council election in September, after pro-democracy candidates, with 3 million votes cast, won 389 of 452 local council seats in November last year.
Johnny Lau (劉銳紹), a veteran China watcher, said that Beijing is trying to hit Hong Kong while the world is dealing with COVID-19.
“In [Chinese President] Xi Jinping’s (習近平) eyes this is an opportunity to shuffle the cards and to assert its narrative... If the foreign countries turn a blind eye and fail to rein in [China’s power], they [will] also suffer,” Lau said.
Lau might have added that the reason why the territory as of April 13 had only 1,010 virus-infected residents and four deaths had much to do with the strike by thousands of its health workers in early February, demanding full closure of the border with the mainland. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) finally agreed to a 14-day quarantine for anyone coming from the mainland.
In contrast, New York City on April 13 had 106,813 infected residents and 6,182 deaths.
Hong Kong was promised a “high degree of autonomy” for at least 50 years after China resumed control in 1997 under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
The territory’s post-handover mini-constitution, the Basic Law, bars the mainland government from interfering in Hong Kong affairs, and Article 22 says that no department under the Chinese central and local governments “may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong special administrative region administers on its own in accordance with this law.”
Pro-democracy lawmakers accuse Beijing of “blatant intervention” and contravening Article 22 after the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office claimed that some lawmakers were guilty of misconduct for delaying bills, failing to appoint a House Committee chairman and filibustering.
Beijing then declared that Article 22 does not apply to the central government’s Hong Kong Liaison Office.
Professor Jerome Cohen, an East Asian law expert at New York University, described China’s statement as “astounding and incendiary... If taken seriously, it collapses the whole ‘one country, two systems’ edifice that was constructed over so many years since the joint declaration.”
Michael Davis, a former professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, said that China’s aggressive language would “result in further pushback” from Hong Kong society.
“This fear that Hong Kong’s autonomy will be lost, along with it the rule of law, is what has driven the many protests in Hong Kong and international concern,” he said.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office said that the right to peaceful protest was “protected in both the joint declaration and the Basic Law... It is essential that any protests are conducted peacefully, and that the authorities avoid actions that inflame tensions. The authorities should focus on rebuilding trust through a process of meaningful political dialogue.”
Chris Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong, said that Beijing has taken “yet another step towards burying ‘one country, two systems,’” and the arrests show that “Beijing is determined to throttle Hong Kong ... even at the cost of destroying Hong Kong’s way of life... It should be rejected immediately by all those governments and parliaments around the world who know the importance of safeguarding the high degree of autonomy, which is guaranteed by the Basic Law.”
Democracies around the world face a choice: to stay silent in the face of the demise of Hong Kong’s freedoms or to stand up for values we share with people like Lee.
If we stay silent and allow the Chinese Communist Party to trample on Hong Kong in breach of its promises in an international legal treaty, we should not be surprised if we find our own freedoms under greater assault from Beijing next. If we believe that the international rules-based order, international legal treaties and democratic values matter, then we must speak out.
However, Hong Kongers want more than just statements. They want action. This could include targeted Magnitsky-style sanctions by governments already equipped with such legislation — including Canada, the UK and the US — imposed on Chinese officials who are abusing the Basic Law, thereby forcing the imposition of asset freezes and travel bans on human rights abusers in Beijing and Hong Kong.
David Kilgour is a former Canadian lawmaker who served as Canadian secretary of state for Asia-Pacific in 2002 and 2003. He is an international patron of Hong Kong Watch. Benedict Rogers is a British human rights advocate and cofounder and chair of Hong Kong Watch.
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