China is crushing any shred of resistance in Hong Kong reneging on its promises to uphold the freedoms of the region. The arrest of more than 50 pro-democracy figures in the early hours of Wednesday morning under the draconian national security law introduced last year makes it clear that not just peaceful protest but political opposition in itself it is no longer acceptable.
Invoking the loosely defined accusation of subversion against people who participate in Hong Kong’s severely restricted and hampered democratic processes would be almost comical if it weren’t so sinister. The suspects held or participated in primaries to choose the pro-democracy candidates with the best chance of winning elections to the city’s legislative council (LegCo). The intention police said was to harm the government by winning a legislative majority and using it to veto budgets pressuring the chief executive to resign and forcing the government to shut down. In short planning to win office and exercise the legislative veto right now amounts to a crime against national security. Those convicted could face life in prison.
LegCo’s powers have always been limited. He is only partially elected by ordinary residents and authorities have disqualified both candidates and elected members prompting the remaining opposition to resign. They postponed last year’s elections citing the pandemic. They are ingenious enough to ensure a satisfactory result in the postponed vote. So Wednesday’s sledgehammer tactics – police boasted 1000 officers participated – appear designed to scare a resistant population into compliance. Beijing knows that anger despair and the desire for democracy in Hong Kong have only increased since protests broke out in 2019. A tenth of residents voted in the primaries despite official anger.
Those arrested include not only high-profile figures like legal scholar Benny Tai and former pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo but also civil society activists like Jeffrey Andrews a social worker. Support refugees and ethnic minorities and Lee Chivying who participated in the primaries to improve access for wheelchair users.
It is no coincidence that these arrests occurred when all eyes turned to the US in pursuit of the Georgia Senate runoff downplaying international attention and shortly after the EU agreed to an investment treaty with China. much to the chagrin of the new US administration. The EU has called for the immediate release of the detainees but Chris Patten the last British governor of Hong Kong warned that going ahead with the deal would make a mockery of his ambitions to be taken seriously as a global political and economic player. Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab described the arrests as a serious attack on Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms; activists have urged him to sanction Chinese officials. However old diplomatic tools have lost steam because Beijing believes it no longer needs to pay much attention to what the outside world thinks as evidenced by its decision to block a World Health Organization team seeking to visit Wuhan to investigate the origins of the pandemic.
This is not the cold war. It is neither possible nor desirable to sever all ties with China. But neither can we pretend that we have nothing to do with what happens there. The Chinese scholar EU Chagrin has written: “A political organization that is blatantly incapable of treating its own people adequately can hardly be expected to treat the rest of the world well.” It will be even less likely to do so if countries like the United States the EU and the United Kingdom cannot stand together. Coordination and Support are essential. Democracies cannot afford to go it alone.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism