The United States has denounced the Chinese government for the arrest of 15 democracy campaigners in Hong Kong, among them some of the most experienced and distinguished.
William Barr, the US attorney-general, condemned “the latest assault on the rule of law and the liberty of the people of Hong Kong”, in a sweeping statement that reflects growing anger and mistrust within the administration towards Beijing.
“These events show how antithetical the values of the Chinese Communist Party are to those we share in Western liberal democracies,” Mr Barr said. “These actions — along with its malign influence activity and industrial espionage here in the United States — demonstrate once again that the Chinese Communist Party cannot be trusted.”
Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, called the arrests “deeply concerning”. “Politicised law enforcement is inconsistent with universal values of freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” he said.
Martin Lee, an 81-year-old lawyer and politician, and Jimmy Lai, the owner of the independent newspaper Apple Daily, were among those arrested on Saturday for offences connected with the anti-government demonstrations last year. Another lawyer and former pro-democracy legislator, Margaret Ng, 72, was also arrested. They are to appear in court on May 18.
“After months of witnessing youths being arrested and prosecuted while I stayed out of it, I actually felt guilty,” said Mr Lee, who, in a long career of protest against the Hong Kong government and its sponsors in Beijing, has never before been arrested. After being released on bail, he added: “I feel proud to walk the road of democracy with these outstanding youths.”
The 15 activists are to be prosecuted for the crimes of organising, publicising or participating in illegal gatherings between August and October last year. Hong Kong was electrified by demonstrations that began in June as a protest against a proposed new extradition law but which rapidly became a wider call for democracy. At their height, an estimated million people took to the streets in the largest ever expression of discontent with China’s government.
The hated extradition law was abandoned in September but the demonstrations continued. Apart from the dropping of the extradition legislation, the demonstrators have four other demands: an independent inquiry into police conduct; a blanket amnesty for all those charged with offences stemming from their involvement in demonstrations; a withdrawal of the police claim that protesters have been guilty of rioting; and fully democratic elections.
The protests became increasingly violent in the autumn, with demonstrators using stones and petrol bombs. Many protesters were arrested after occupying the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The restrictions on public gatherings imposed on Hong Kong following the coronavirus epidemic have quelled physical demonstrations for the foreseeable future.
In the past week, Beijing’s representatives in Hong Kong have called for the passing of a bitterly controversial national security law and insisted that they have the right to interfere in Hong Kong affairs, despite stipulations in the territory’s constitution, the Basic Law, that apparently forbid this.
The former governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten of Barnes, said: “It becomes ever more clear, week by week and day by day, that Beijing is determined to throttle Hong Kong. The world should make clear how this further undermines any residual trust that we still have in the Chinese communist dictatorship.”