A day after Chinese authorities arrested a Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon, prominent activist and a handful of others in a sweeping crackdown on dissent, Japan’s top government spokesman on Tuesday reiterated Tokyo’s grave concern about turmoil in the city but did not ramp up pressure over the issue, instead sticking to well-worn diplomatic language.

At a news conference, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga did not directly address a question about the arrests of Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, activist Agnes Chow and the others in one of the most massive crackdowns since Beijing imposed a security law on the city. Instead, Suga merely repeated the government’s boilerplate statement that Tokyo remains “gravely concerned” about the situation in Hong Kong, which he said Japan regards as a “very important partner” in terms of economic and personal exchanges.

The 23-year-old Chow, who speaks fluent Japanese and is popular in Japan, was among a group of prominent pro-democracy activists who earlier this year urged Tokyo to rethink a planned visit to the country by Chinese President Xi Jinping. The visit was originally set for March but has been delayed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

News of her arrest triggered a rush of anger on social media Tuesday, with scores of people in Japan and worldwide voicing their support for the pro-democracy leader on Twitter that saw the hashtag #freeagnes trend for much of the day.

Lai, 71, has been criticized by Beijing as an “anti-China rabble-rouser” who conspired with foreigners to “stir up chaos.”

Both were among 10 people arrested Monday on charges that include collusion with foreign forces and fraud.

Asked about Suga’s remarks at a news conference later Tuesday, China’s Foreign Ministry brushed off the Japanese concerns.

“No external forces are allowed to interfere” in Hong Kong, ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said. “We urge Japan to recognize the reality, understand the issue correctly, and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.”

Earlier in the day a spokesman for China’s foreign affairs commissioner in Hong Kong said in a statement that “lawbreakers shall be held accountable, and no one shall be above the law.”

“By openly colluding with external forces to endanger national security, Jimmy Lai and a small handful of other anti-China troublemakers in Hong Kong have purposely undermined Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability and its citizens’ fundamental wellbeing,” the spokesman said.

“It should also be clear that there is no such thing as absolute press freedom above the law anywhere in the world, and that it is totally unacceptable to interfere in China’s internal affairs and undermine China’s national security and Hong Kong’s stability under the pretext of press freedom.”

The crackdown was touted by Chinese state-run media as dealing “a heavy blow to Hong Kong secessionism.”

“The arrests of the ‘black hands’ behind the yearlong violent protests in Hong Kong show that no offender is immune to the national security law, however mighty his or her foreign patrons be,” the China Daily newspaper said in an editorial Monday.

Police lead Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai away from his home after he was arrested under the new national security law in the city on Monday. | AFP-JIJI
Police lead Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai away from his home after he was arrested under the new national security law in the city on Monday. | AFP-JIJI

On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a Twitter post that the arrests were “further proof that the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) has eviscerated Hong Kong’s freedoms and eroded the rights of its people.”

In an interview, Pompeo said that the U.S. would respond in “real ways” that “help the Chinese Communist Party understand you’re not going to take action against America or Americans” without significant blowback from Washington.

In contrast, Japan has found itself in a difficult position responding to the Hong Kong protests and the national security law as it seeks to strike a balance between its economic relationship with China and its growing concerns over security and rights issues.

At the Tuesday news conference, Suga said that Tokyo has repeatedly conveyed its position on maintaining the “one country, two systems” principle to its Chinese counterparts.

Japan and other nations have also joined hands to issue rebukes of the new security law, saying it has eroded Hong Kong’s autonomy under the framework. The legislation outlaws acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. It also allows suspects to be transferred to mainland China for prosecution.

Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong also comes amid other provocative moves by China against Taiwan and in the South and East China seas that have unnerved Japan.

Still despite the strong words against China’s crackdown in the city, there has been no evidence Beijing is listening to these complaints.

Some conservative Japanese lawmakers, however, have taken matters into their own hands, with a group from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party lawmakers last month adopting a highly unusual resolution demanding Xi’s state visit be called off. That move put them at odds with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has invested much of his political capital into improving ties with the world’s second-largest economy.

On Tuesday, a separate bipartisan group of lawmakers focusing on supporting Hong Kongers facing pressure over the security law said it would convene an urgent meeting Wednesday. The grouping, known as the Japan Parliamentary Association on China, includes former Defense Minister Gen Nakatani and Lower House member Akihisa Nagashima, a former deputy defense minister.

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