Hong Kong Arrests Spark Anger From Movement That Has Left the Streets
Pro-democracy marches are on hold in coronavirus pandemic, but calls emerge for summer protests
Pro-democracy activist Martin Lee on Saturday, as he left a Hong Kong police station after his arrest.
Updated April 19, 2020 6:03 pm ET
HONG KONG—The arrest of veteran pro-democracy figures has stirred anger among supporters of a protest movement that has stayed off the streets during the coronavirus pandemic and spurred calls to restart demonstrations this summer.
On Saturday, Hong Kong police arrested more than a dozen pro-democracy lawyers and activists. More than 7,500 people have been arrested during the course of the protests that rocked the city for much of last year, but many of those have been for alleged acts of violence and vandalism. Saturday’s arrests targeted participants in largely peaceful rallies that police said violated the boundaries of their permits.
Among the arrested were Martin Lee, a senior barrister known as the “father of democracy”; Albert Ho, a lawyer and former lawmaker; and Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon and founder of Apple Daily, a local pro-democracy newspaper.
The arrests drew condemnation locally and globally, including criticism of authorities for targeting the pro-democracy movement at a moment when the world was focused on halting the spread of the coronavirus and social-distancing restrictions limited how protesters could respond on the streets of Hong Kong.
“It’s a golden opportunity for them to suppress democracy activists in Hong Kong,” said Lee Cheuk-yan, vice chairman of the city’s Labour Party. “If this happened before the outbreak, there would be a march today, a march tomorrow and one next week—but no one can march for us now because of the virus.”
Lee Cheuk-yan was among the group arrested Saturday in connection with three protests last year. He has been charged for organizing and participating in an unauthorized assembly on Aug. 18 and Oct. 1. He is now out on bail and is due to attend his first court hearing next month.
The protests, which began last June, were initially sparked by a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed for people to be tried on the mainland. The demonstrations widened into a larger movement fighting for democracy in the semiautonomous city, as well as an independent judge-led investigation into police handling of the protests.
As some protests increasingly turned violent last summer, police began restricting rallies. On Aug. 18, police allowed an assembly in Victoria Park but banned a march. As hundreds of thousands crowded the park, a number of pro-democracy figures, including Mr. Lee, led them out of the park to march anyway through pouring rain. The march concluded hours later without sparking notable violence or confrontations with police.
A government spokesperson said Sunday that decisions to arrest the protesters were made independently by police and weren’t politically influenced. “The Police are duty bound to handle every case in a fair, just and impartial manner,” the spokesperson said in a written statement.
Protests that simmered throughout the second part of last year scored a victory in late November, when pro-democracy candidates—many of them new to the political arena—swept district council elections. While street protests continued after that, many in the movement began turning their attention toward other ways of supporting it in civil society, such as organizing labor unions and patronizing restaurants and businesses that were seen as supportive of democracy and shunning those that were viewed as pro-government. Attention has now shifted toward supporting pro-democracy candidates in Legislative Council elections scheduled for later this year.
“Now is the time for us to concentrate on these fronts rather than street politics,” said Eric Lai, vice-convener of the Civil Human Rights Front, an umbrella group that organized some of last year’s biggest marches. “The state intimidation, though threatening, will only consolidate people in Hong Kong to resist the authoritarian rule.”
Immediately after the arrests, Mr. Lai’s group called for more people to join their annual July 1 march. “In general, people are waiting for alleviation of the spread of coronavirus. People hope to mobilize in a safe environment,” said Mr. Lai, who added he was concerned that the government would continue emergency measures against public gatherings even when the threat of the coronavirus has dissipated.
The Saturday arrests, targeting peaceful protesters as opposed to those who were more radical, will stir anger among older, traditional pro-democracy supporters who might otherwise have had misgivings about the more violent tactics of some protesters last year, said Kevin Yam, a Hong Kong lawyer and former convener of the Progressive Lawyers Group, thus widening the antigovernment coalition even further.
Outside the police station on Saturday, Martin Lee, the 81-year-old veteran democracy campaigner, said: “I’m relieved and proud to finally be listed as a defendant alongside so many brilliant young Hong Kong people in walking the road to democracy together. I have no regrets.”
Mr. Lee has been a prominent advocate for democracy here. He has met with senior officials in the U.S. to promote the cause, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last May and then-Vice President Joe Biden in 2014.
The arrests drew condemnation from senior figures in the U.K. and the U.S., including Attorney General William Barr, who said in a written statement that he condemned “the latest assault on the rule of law and the liberty of the people of Hong Kong.”
“These events show how antithetical the values of the Chinese Communist Party are to those we share in Western liberal democracies,” Mr. Barr said.
The coronavirus pandemic, which began in mainland China in December, has brought pro-democracy rallies to a halt. Hong Kong has been praised for its containment of the outbreak. The city has avoided the full lockdowns seen in other major cities, though there are social-distancing restrictions for restaurants and gyms and bars have been ordered to close.
The city reported daily single-digit increases in the number of new infections last week, as the pathogen appeared to be on the retreat locally. Credit for that has been in part given to the local population, who wear masks in public places and have generally avoided social behavior that might exacerbate the spread. The city of 7.5 million has had 1,025 confirmed coronavirus cases and four deaths so far, a comparatively low number, especially given its proximity and travel ties to mainland China.
Politicians from both the pro-democracy and pro-government camps have been handing out masks to supporters. In late February, as the local population criticized the government for failing to procure enough protective equipment, for example, a political group led by activist Joshua Wong bought more than a million masks from Honduras, which were later distributed to local people.
Fears in Hong Kong of another wave of pressure from the mainland were heightened this past week after Luo Huining, Beijing’s new representative in Hong Kong, said the city needed to introduce national security legislation, which democracy advocates fear would criminalize political dissent as a form of treason, “as soon as possible.”
“We’re now confronting the Communist Party in a very naked manner—all the veils have been removed,” said Mr. Lee, the labor activist. “After fighting on behalf of human-rights activists on the mainland these many years—our predicament is now more and more like theirs.”
“But anger is still building in Hong Kongers’ hearts, and they will take every opportunity to show their resistance.”
Natasha Khan at firstname.lastname@example.org