Beijing and the Hong Kong government are using the pandemic as a “golden opportunity” to crack down on dissent and the growing pro-democracy movement, a senior protest leader arrested over the weekend said.
The arrest of Lee Cheuk-yan (李卓人), a veteran politician and general secretary of the independent Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, and 14 other high-profile people on Saturday, came amid a run of acts by authorities seen as alarming intrusions on Hong Kong’s autonomy, ahead of Legislative Council elections in September.
Lee told the Guardian that the arrests — which were condemned by the UK, US and Australian governments and human rights groups — would have seen people “pouring out onto the street to protest” in normal times.
“But ... Hong Kong people are very alert to the concern of infection, so they are using the chance of the pandemic,” he said. “This is a golden opportunity for them.”
He said Saturday’s arrests were aimed at ensuring pro-Beijing candidates won a majority in the elections, and could push through “more stringent or draconian laws for the future.”
He said candidates could not run if they had been sentenced to a jail term of more than three months.
“Anyone who wants to run in the election, you better be careful. I think that’s the message,” he said.
Also rounded up were 81-year-old lawyer and Democratic Party founder Martin Lee (李柱銘) and 71-year-old publishing tycoon Jimmy Lai (黎智英) on charges relating to three unauthorized protests in Hong Kong.
It was the second time that Lee Cheuk-yan and Lai have been detained by Hong Kong police this year.
Lee Cheuk-yan decried the arrests as an act of “revenge and retaliation” against pro-democracy activists, as part of a plan by the Chinese Communist Party to silence dissent.
The arrests related to the alleged organizing of and participation in unauthorized protests, including three held on Aug. 18, Oct. 1 and Oct. 20 last year.
The Aug. 18 protest was permitted inside a park, but spilled out to the streets when 1.7 million people showed up, and remained peaceful.
“If we are found to be guilty of the [participation] charges, then 1.7 million people should be guilty of participation in an unauthorized assembly,” Lee Cheuk-yan said. “But that’s absurd … Are you going to prosecute 1.7 million people?”
Lee Cheuk-yan said he and others also faced further charges for announcing a protest before receiving approval from police.
Speaking to the Guardian before he was arrested, Martin Lee said Beijing was “resorting to all kinds of tricks” to stifle potential pro-democracy candidates, out of a reasonable fear that they might win power.
Pro-Beijing legislator and former Hong Kong secretary of security Regina Ip (葉劉淑儀) told the Guardian the arrests should not be viewed “purely through a political lens” and that no one was above the law.
The protests were expected to “return with a vengeance” once the pandemic subsided, and that Hong Kong would never regain its stature if order was not restored, Ip said.
Meanwhile, responding to criticism of Saturday’s arrests, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday condemned “certain Western politicians’ interference” in China’s internal affairs.
Spokesman Geng Shuang (耿爽) told reporters during a daily briefing in Beijing that Hong Kong is a society ruled by rule of law and said that the relevant parties must respect this.
In related news, pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong (黃之鋒) and former lawmaker Nathan Law (羅冠聰) yesterday presented a report on the property portfolio of Hong Kong Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government at a news conference in the territory.
The report says that Beijing dramatically expanded its properties in the territory since the 2014 Occupy protests and owns 757 properties, worth about HK$3.4 billion (US$438.7 million).
Additional reporting by agencies
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