China’s unprecedented arrest of dozens of leading Hong Kong opposition figures illustrates the depth of Joe Biden’s challenges with Beijing. By the time he becomes U.S. president, there might not be much democracy left to save in the Asian financial hub.
The Hong Kong police on Wednesday rounded up more than 50 activists, former lawmakers and academics, as well as an American rights lawyer, in a series of morning raids across the former British colony involving more than 1,000 officers. All had helped organize an unofficial primary in July to nominate opposition candidates for a legislative election that was later postponed.
The crackdown was the largest to date in a single day under a Beijing-drafted national security law that carries sentences as long as life in prison, shocking even for a city where opposition figures have increasingly found themselves facing criminal charges for attending protests, holding banners or getting into legislative chamber scuffles. Those arrested included former law professor Benny Tai, who helped organize the primary.
The action showed how much Chinese President Xi Jinping has tipped the balance of power back to the government after a historic wave of democracy protests gripped Hong Kong for months in 2019. Xi has marched ahead with efforts to quash the city’s opposition, despite international condemnation and the Trump administration’s efforts to sanction Chinese officials and roll back trade benefits for the Asian financial center.
While Biden has pledged a more coordinated approach to preserve democracies around the world, it’s difficult to see what he can do to reverse the trend in Hong Kong. The detention of John Clancey, an American lawyer who works for a prominent local law firm and served as a treasurer for an organizer of the primary, marks the first time a foreign citizen has been arrested under the security law. The arrest stands to further escalate tensions between Washington and Beijing.
The police were expected to grant bail to those who were arrested, local Cable TV reported on Thursday, without giving further detail. Now TV reported separately that Clancey had been granted bail.
Jailed Hong Kong democracy campaigner Joshua Wong was among those arrested by police on Thursday under the national security law, a senior police source said. Wong, currently serving a sentence of 13 and a half months for his role in organizing democracy protests, was arrested inside Shek Pik Prison on a new charge of subversion, the officer confirmed.
“The sweeping arrests this morning show that the regime is unrelenting in its efforts to persecute the democratic activists,” said opposition politician Fernando Cheung, adding that Hong Kong was taking advantage of the West being preoccupied with the coronavirus. “It’s a clear signal to the new Biden administration that China will not let up in its efforts to eradicate the opposition in Hong Kong and that it has determined to seize complete control.”
The arrests come at a time when the two Western powers that have led the push back against China on Hong Kong are both reeling from internal political problems and surging COVID-19 caseloads. Washington has been gripped by Trump’s efforts to contest the election results while the U.K. was fixated on Brexit and trade negotiations with Europe and the imposition of new lockdown measures.
Investors have largely shrugged off Xi’s clampdown. Hong Kong’s benchmark Hang Seng Index rose to an 11-month high on Wednesday and the city’s currency held near the strong end of its trading band against the dollar. While recent surveys have shown U.S. businesses in Hong Kong are concerned about the national security law, few major companies have announced plans to scale back operations in the financial hub.
Biden’s nominee for U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, signaled that the incoming president was watching, with a tweet condemning the “assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights.” The administration “will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy,” he said.
U.K. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who has previously accused China of breaching its treaty commitments to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy until at least 2047, called the latest arrests a “grievous attack on rights and freedoms.” Canada, which has some 300,000 passport holders in the city, also expressed concern, with Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne calling it “another sad example” of the erosion of the “one country, two systems” promise.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying responded to a question about Blinken’s comment by reasserting that “no other countries have the right to make wanton comments or interfere” in China’s affairs.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong Security Secretary John Lee defended the arrests as “necessary” to punish those who wanted to paralyze the government and plunge it into an “abyss.” He said the more than 600,000 regular voters who participated in the primary wouldn’t be targeted.
Already much of Hong Kong’s opposition has been ousted, disqualified from running or is facing criminal charges. Activists have gone into exile in Europe and attempted to flee by boat as the fear of arrest grows. A September legislative election, in which democrats once hoped to win an unprecedented majority, has been postponed until later this year.
In fact, Wednesday’s arrests centered on an effort by the opposition to overcome Beijing’s lock on power and their internal differences by holding a public primary to select a unified slate of candidates. They then planned to secure enough seats on the legislature to access a provision of city law that would forced Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step down after blocking her budget.
“If running for office and trying to win elections means subversion, it is clear that the national security law is aimed at the total subjugation of Hong Kong people,” said Victoria Hui, an associate professor at the University of Notre Dame specializing in Hong Kong politics. “There should be no expectation of elections in any sense that we know it, if and when elections are held in the future.”
Chinese authorities had at the time warned that the plans might run afoul of the new security law, comparing the effort to trying to foment a “color revolution.”
Still, the detention of an American lawyer “shows that expatriates are not immune to the risks posed by the national security law,” said Thomas Kellogg, executive director of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law. “His arrest has major implications for Hong Kong’s standing as a leading global city.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Thursday threatened sanctions against individuals and organizations involved in the arrest, voicing anger that an American was among those rounded up. Pompeo said the people arrested Wednesday “should be released immediately and unconditionally.”
“The United States will not stand idly by while the people of Hong Hong suffer under Communist oppression,” Pompeo said in a late-night statement after a day of political violence in Washington.
“The United States will consider sanctions and other restrictions on any and all individuals and entities involved in executing this assault on the Hong Kong people.”
Pompeo, who remains in office for two weeks, said the United States would also “explore restrictions” against the financial hub’s trade representative office in Washington.
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