Hong Kong authorities arrested 53 pro-democracy figures earlier this month, on the grounds that they responded to democracy activist Benny Tai Yiu-ting’s call to challenge the government. The Chinese regime felt emboldened to enforce the national security law in making the arrests, and to use this incident as a warning to those who dare to challenge its authority.
Benny Tai, a former Hong Kong University law professor, is known for his role in initiating the Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a non-violent civil disobedience campaign that called on the Hong Kong government to implement full democracy in 2014, which turned into the massive pro-democracy protests. The goal of the campaign was to achieve universal suffrage in Hong Kong, according to an article that Tai wrote, titled “Civil Disobedience’s Deadliest Weapon,” published in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Jan. 16, 2013. The article stated that Occupy Central is the most powerful weapon to push the government to negotiate with the protesters peacefully.
In July 2020, Chinese authorities accused Tai of helping to organize an unofficial primary vote for the opposition pro-democracy camp to select candidates for elections for the city’s legislature. Beijing said at the time Tai’s goal was “to seize the ruling power of Hong Kong and … carry out a Hong Kong version of ‘color revolution.’”
On Jan. 6 this year, the 53 activists were arrested on suspicion of committing crimes under the national security law, for their roles in the primary election held by the pan-democracy camp in July that Tai was accused of helping to organize.
The national security law, which went into effect on June 30 after ceremonial votes by China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), penalizes vaguely defined crimes such as subversion and secession with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
Chinese officials claimed the law would target a small segment of society, but the offenses’ broad and vague definitions—as well as a part that stipulates that non-Hong Kong residents could also be subject to prosecution—have stoked concern among legal experts and human rights observers, who say that residents and foreigners alike who draw the regime’s ire could be at its mercy once they set foot on Hong Kong soil.
Such laws “should never be used to criminalize conduct and expression that is protected under international human rights law,” the U.N. human rights office said in a July 3 statement, expressing alarm at the potential “discriminatory or arbitrary interpretation and enforcement.”
Concerns have been raised that the law breaches Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which guarantees that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights can remain in force in the territory.
Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which set the terms of Hong Kong’s transfer to Chinese rule in 1997, the regime agreed to grant the city autonomy and freedoms not enjoyed in the mainland, under the formula of “one country, two systems.”
The “discriminatory or arbitrary interpretation and enforcement” of the security law was displayed when Steve Li Kwai-wah, the senior superintendent of the Hong Kong police’s national security unit, compared the recent arrests (of the 53 activists) to driving (a vehicle) and committing a robbery. He said that driving, in and of itself, is fine; but if the purpose or the intent is to commit a robbery, then driving would be a crime. However, a problem arises with this line of reasoning—a person who is driving somewhere could be accused of planning to commit theft, even without concrete evidence. If the person was only thinking about committing the robbery but did not go through with it, then what crime did he commit? Li’s logic just doesn’t make sense.
Li was one of the four officials who were sanctioned by the United States on Nov. 9 for their roles in implementing Hong Kong’s new national security law.
What crime did these pro-democracy activists commit? They didn’t even get the chance to respond to Benny Tai’s call in establishing democracy in the city, which would challenge Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, the puppet of the Chinese regime.
The primary elections, organized by local political association Power for Democracy on July 11 and July 12, 2020, aimed to select the most promising pro-democracy candidates to run for legislative office. The pan-democracy camp was hoping to win a majority or more than 35 seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo).
The pro-democracy figures were arrested based on accusations that they violated the national security law. Six of them were placed in custody under suspicion of organizing and planning criminal activities to subvert state power, while the other 47 were arrested for involvement in such activities, the Hong Kong police said. Both are punishable offenses under the security law which penalizes vaguely-defined crimes such as subversion and secession.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) implemented this large-scale arrest in Hong Kong at this time because it was emboldened by two events: the United States is in the process of a presidential transition, and the EU and China agreed in principle on a Comprehensive Agreement on Investment at the end of December.
Although U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, criticized the arrests, I think his remarks weren’t strong enough in calling out Beijing’s actions. Other U.S. lawmakers and Japanese politicians condemned the arrests, but I think their statements were quite weak. The EU member states also turned a blind eye to China’s human rights abuses when they signed the new business investment deal. However, Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong who always cared about the city, urged the EU to reject the agreement.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping is under the spotlight as China’s image is being tarnished. The diplomatic relations between China and the United States has deteriorated since the trade war began in 2018. Washington has imposed a series of sanctions against Beijing and Chinese officials. The international community wants to hold Beijing accountable for the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, Hongkongers continue to fight against the CCP’s encroachment of their city’s autonomy and freedoms—the Chinese regime regards this as an act of defiance and won’t tolerate it.
Xi has to punish the Hong Kong protesters heavily in order to show that he rules with an iron fist. It would serve as a warning to Hongkongers and the mainland Chinese. The recent arrests of the 53 pro-democracy activists served these goals.
Xi also realized that the United States and EU countries are limited in their capacity to punish Beijing because they have their own domestic issues to deal with. He probably believes that they may not be willing to pay a greater price on the Hong Kong issue, and they most likely will just pay lip service–this wouldn’t impact his authority.
I have to admit that Hong Kong does not have such an irreplaceable strategic position for the United States and Europe. Although the United States and EU have sufficient means to sanction the CCP, they will have to pay the price themselves. The question is whether or not the Western politicians are willing to do so in order to maintain universal values and to put a stop to the CCP’s hegemonic ambitions.
The people of Hong Kong still have to be self-reliant and never give up. Xi’s suppression of Hong Kong is to challenge the bottom line of U.S. and European politicians, and to see how much they can tolerate. But this move could provoke Western countries as they would see it as a violation of universal values.
The CCP has planted the seed of indignation in the Hong Kong people and the righteous people of the world. Sooner or later, the CCP will reap the consequences.
Ngan Shunkau is a writer and a publisher who has lived in Hong Kong since 1978. He is the author of “Blood Rain in My Youth” (血雨華年), a story about opposing factions among the Red Guards during China’s Cultural Revolution.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.