By Jack Allen
“The arrest of some of the most distinguished leaders over decades of the campaign for democracy and the rule of law in Hong Kong is an unprecedented assault on the values which have underpinned Hong Kong’s way of life for years.”CHRIS PATTEN
This is how Hong Kong’s last colonial governor described a series of high-profile arrests made on Saturday across the city. Attesting to the concerns raised by Chris Patten, the arrests targeted a particular subset of the pro-democracy protest movement which garnered worldwide attention in the conclusion of 2019 — its most distinguished leaders.
Martin Lee — known as the Father of Democracy in Hong Kong —began his career in the political and legal system as a barrister, and subsequently served as Chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association from 1980 to 1983.
As time passed, his remit extended to discussions about the future of British Hong Kong — and its status after sovereignty was set to be relinquished to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. And so in 1985, he was elected to Hong Kong’s newly-created Legislative Council; simultaneously being appointed to the Basic Law Drafting Committee (BLDC) to write a “constitution” for the territory, to be set in place after the infamous Hong Kong handover.
His time at the BLDC was short-lived — Lee’s criticism of the PRC following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests resulted in his dismissal from the role. This didn’t, however, have any impact on his consecutive elections to the Legislative Council until 2008.
Lee was the founding Chairman of the United Democrats in 1990 — which won in the 1991 election — and then of the Democratic Party, which won in 1995, 1998 and 2000. Both of these Parties were liberal, anti-communist and criticised Beijing’s treatment of the Chinese mainland and Hong Kong equally. Needless to say, by this time, officials in Beijing were increasingly embittered by this formiddable politician’s influence. He is vital to Hong Kong’s democratic status.
More than a decade after his final term in the Legislative Council ended, Martin Lee was led out of his house by several undercover officers in a mix of business and casual attire. The arrest was unexpected — Lee had never been subject to criminal prosecution before, and had been unable to participate in radical, fast-flowing protests due to his age, and yet he was now being accused of organising and participating in “unlawful assemblies” in the late months of 2019. Many radical and moderate protesters alike, suspect that Hong Kong Police may be fulfilling a backlog of arrests, to silence the symbolic heads of the pro-democracy movement. Circumstances were suspicious.
Lee was not the only individual detained. 14 others who promoted democracy were also led away — Leung Yiu-chung, Avery Ng, Lee Cheuk-yan, Albert Ho, Figo Chan, Jimmy Lai, Sin Chung-kai, Cyd Ho, Au Nok-hin, Margaret Ng, Yeung Sum, Raphael Wong, Leung Kwok-hung and Richard Tsoi.
Margaret Ng is perhaps the next most renowned barrister and politician within that list, after Martin Lee.
An executive committee member of the Civic Party (the second largest pro-democrat organisation in the city), Ng is also barred from entering the Chinese mainland.
If collective punishment — via denial of entry to the very nation state which holds sovereignty over Hong Kong — for her partisanship alone is indeed something of a disturbing violation of the very basic freedom of violation, her arrest on Saturday is outright frightening. She is one of the most well-known advocates of human rights in the territory.
“Although we had all the written instruments to preserve human rights and to safeguard freedom, we knew that when we were handed over to one of the world’s largest totalitarian regimes, it was not going to be about words. It was about action and about implementation” — Margaret Ng, upon receiving the IBA award for Outstanding Contribution by a Legal Practitioner to Human Rights.
It was clear, if nothing else, that Ng had established herself as an “enemy” in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party. The views that Ng held struck at the very core of Beijing’s beliefs in the form of communism, authoritarianism and the suppression of liberal rights. Her arrest was also the result of supposed offences related to “unlawful assemblies”. Hong Kong Police have refused to produce evidence or further expand on when said offences were committed. The 72 year-old was not witnessed engaging in radical demonstrations in late 2019, outside of discussing events with protesters. Her arrest is also, at best, suspicious. Even her phone — and all other detainees’ phones — were seized.
The timing of the detentions of all 15 activists raises the most suspicion. Both Ng and Lee, and those remaining 13, were arrested during the onslaught of the Coronavirus pandemic, which as of the time this article was written, forced protesters to temporarily cease the Anti Extradition Bill Protests of 2019. It was the alleged organisation of, and participation in, this event that police had used to justify the raids on democrats’ homes. The demonstration’s fires that once lit the streets had been extinguished, and the cathartic screams and shouts had long since been silenced. Protesters cannot express their distrust in the Government, they can no longer display signs adorned with pleas to the Western world and outsiders to take notice, and they are unable to physically block the infrastructure that is so important to the operation of the Hong Kong Legislative Council.
And it is this fact alone — that protests are halted for the foreseeable future — that enabled police to move into activists’ home and make arrests, without major protest or physical resistance. We still do not know exactly how, where or when this virus developed — but it has given Hong Kong Police a window of opportunity to strike back, not only to remove Margaret Ng and other lawyers from public life and influence, but also to dethrone the Father of Democracy himself. A virus has impeded the protesters and rioters of Hong Kong — it has stopped them from standing up for their liberty and human rights.
The Sino-British declaration sets out clear terms. Hong Kong SAR is to remain almost completely independent of Beijing’s reins until 2047. Most of the freedom granted to Hong Kong under British rule would remain intact for 50 years following the 1997 handover. The legal status of Hong Kong after this time concludes is of course unclear.
But for now, one objective reality remains true. Unless the United Kingdom as the guarantor of Hong Kong’s liberty and human rights takes economic and political action against the People’s Republic of China, it is both possible and probable that — long before the agreement terminates in 2047— Hong Kong will continue to be oppressed and its freedoms will be destroyed.
Jack Allen is a British 19 year-old with a passionate interest in politics and foreign affairs.