In a coordinated crackdown, Hong Kong police on Monday arrested 10 prominent pro-democracy campaigners, journalists and media figures on trumped-up charges of collusion with foreign forces.
Jimmy Lai (黎智英), owner of the Apple Daily in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and democracy advocate Agnes Chow (周庭) are the most high-profile of the 10. The others included two of Lai’s sons and four executives at Next Digital, the Apple Daily’s parent company, in addition to a freelance journalist working for UK-based ITV News.
Lai and Chow have since been released on bail, but the police have signaled that their crackdown is ongoing and further arrests can be expected. The intention is clearly to intimidate and harass pro-democracy advocates and their supporters, to foster an environment of self-censorship.
Scenes of an estimated 200 police officers flooding into Apple Daily’s offices and escorting Lai from his home were a distressing sight for most Hong Kongers, and indeed everyone who cares about free speech and the rule of law.
Perhaps most worrying was footage of police officers rifling through items on reporters’ desks, including notebooks, name cards and computers. Officers loaded container after container of files and personal belongings onto trucks to take away for further analysis. Confidential sources have undoubtedly been compromised and ongoing investigations by the newspaper have been undermined.
Although by no means the first, these arrests are significant. Hong Kong’s rambunctious independent media and its small army of bloggers and Twitter users continue to publish stories that Beijing and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) would prefer never saw the light of day.
Of Hong Kong’s major institutions, the free press is the last line of defense guarding free speech and liberty in the territory.
In true Leninist fashion, Beijing long ago began a quiet march through Hong Kong’s institutions. It has already gained control over five critical organizations necessary to achieve total control — the executive branch, civil service, the judiciary, police and education.
Lam’s administration has been coerced or corrupted into supine acquiescence, as civil servants are being forced to toe the line or lose their jobs. The once independent judiciary has been neutralized through the imposition of sweeping national security legislation. The police demonstrate on an almost daily basis that Beijing has comprehensively infiltrated them, while schools and libraries are beginning to self-censor, removing “sensitive” publications and books and banning students from engaging in political activities.
The media are the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle, after which Beijing would have assumed complete control over every key institution in the territory.
Chow’s arrest is significant as it signals the opening of a new front against online speech. The media-savvy Chow has a huge following on Twitter and is the face of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in Japan, where she is known as the “Goddess of Democracy.”
Even as more arrests are expected, Beijing might emulate its tactics on the mainland by pressuring technology companies such as Apple and Alphabet’s Google to remove encrypted communication apps, such as Signal and Telegram, from their Hong Kong app stores. Other online platforms such as Twitter and YouTube might also come under pressure to remove content.
If its independent media are emasculated and its online freedom fighters are walled-off behind Beijing’s “digital iron curtain,” Hong Kong will have been fully “harmonized” by Beijing.
Hong Kong is fast becoming the new West Berlin. The world must stand with it in its darkest hour.
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