US Officials Question Hong Kong’s Autonomy After Arrest of Media Tycoon

March 4, 2020 Updated: March 4, 2020
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Following the recent arrests of three supporters of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, two U.S. lawmakers are calling for the enforcement of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which was signed into law in November last year.

Last June, mass protests ignited over a since-shelved bill that would have allowed the Chinese regime to extradite individuals from Hong Kong to face trial in the mainland.

Many Hongkongers—and U.S. lawmakers who supported them—saw the extradition bill as a sign of Beijing’s encroachment on the city’s freedoms and autonomy, which China had promised to uphold after the territory was transferred from British to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

U.S. Congress thus passed legislation requiring that the U.S. Secretary of State annually review whether the former British colony is “sufficiently autonomous” from mainland China to retain its special economic privileges.

Since 1997, the United States has considered Hong Kong a separate entity in matters of trade, investments, and visas.

Hong Kong protesters have billed the law as a victory in their struggle to achieve universal suffrage and have an independent inquiry to investigate police violence during recent protests.

Arrests

Last Friday, Hong Kong police arrested several outspoken critics of Beijing: Yeung Sum, former chairman of the Democratic Party; Lee Cheuk-yan, vice chairman of the pro-democracy Labour Party; and Jimmy Lai, founder of the media conglomerate Next Digital. Publications under the media group, such as Apple Daily, are known for their outspoken critiques of Beijing.

All three were charged for participating in an “illegal assembly” on Aug. 31, 2019. Lai was also charged for intimidating a local reporter during an incident in 2017. They have all been released on bail and are scheduled to appear in local court on May 5.

The three, along with thousands of other Hong Kong residents, participated in a march from Wan Chai to the Central district on Aug. 31.

The march was initially organized by a local pro-democracy group to protest the extradition bill. But after police rejected the group’s application, people gathered for a religious rally to “pray for sinners” in Hong Kong government—as local regulations stipulate that religious gatherings do not need prior approval from police.

Rights groups and local lawmakers deemed the arrests as political suppression from Beijing.

Hong Kong’s Department of Justice, in a statement issued on Feb. 29, stated that it was “wholly speculative and totally baseless to suggest that the prosecutorial decisions were made under undue influence.”

Call to Action

U.S. lawmakers condemned the arrests. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) stated: “We witnessed yet another sad chapter in what appears to be the steady erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy with the arrest of Jimmy Lai, Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum, along with other leading voices for democracy and the freedom of expression,” he said in a March 2 press release.

“To be clear, these individuals were targeted and thrown in jail for doing nothing more than seeking to exercise their rights to free speech, assembly, association, and the press under Hong Kong’s own Basic Law,” he added, referring to the city’s mini-constitution.

Menendez called on the U.S. administration to “fully implement the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.”

The law stipulates that sanctions be placed on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who have violated human rights in the city.

U.S. Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho) also expressed his concerns about the arrests in a statement, saying that “there has been no accountability” for the Hong Kong government in arresting and charging pro-democracy protesters. He also called for the Hong Kong human rights law to be put into action.

In Hong Kong, the satellite office for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on March 3, accusing the two U.S. lawmakers of “brutally interfering with Hong Kong’s rule of law and judicial independence” with their remarks.

Last Friday, the U.S. State Department also voiced its concerns about the three arrests.

“We expect Hong Kong authorities not to use law enforcement selectively for political purposes, and to handle cases fairly and transparently in a manner that preserves the rule of law and the Hong Kong people’s universal rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression,” the State Department said in a press statement.

Cédric Alviani, head of Reporters Without Borders’ (RSF) East Asia bureau, said “there is no justification for the charges against Jimmy Lai and his arrest at home like a criminal, which seem to be intended to humiliate him,” in a March 3 statement.

“His arrest is designed to smear him and his media group, which provided extensive coverage of last year’s pro-democracy protests,” Alviani added.

Follow Frank on Twitter: @HwaiDer