By Iain Marlow, Natalie Lung, and Annie Lee
Hong Kong police arrested prominent opposition figures including Joshua Wong -- and warned other protesters could share their fate at illegal demonstrations this weekend -- raising tensions as authorities seek to quell pro-democracy demonstrations that have raged for almost three months.
The 22-year-old Wong, who was scheduled to speak about the protests in the U.S. next month, was among well-known pro-democracy activists arrested by police on Thursday and Friday. Those arrested included Wong’s fellow leader of 2014 Occupy protests, Agnes Chow; independence advocate Andy Chan; and District Councilor Rick Hui.
Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow arrive at the Eastern Magistrates’ Court in a police vehicle on Aug. 30.
Police said more than 20 people were arrested since Thursday, and warned at a briefinhowg Friday that others could be charged if they take part in protests without official approval. A colonial statute passed during a wave of deadly riots in the 1960s allows authorities to the power to imprison those who participate in unlawful assemblies for as long as five years and more than 900 have been arrested on a variety of charges since June.
The arrests were part of a broader push back against the largely leaderless protest movement, which flared up in June over now-suspended legislation allowing extraditions to China before widening into a broader push for more democracy. The Civil Human Rights Front -- the organizer of the biggest recent demonstrations -- said Friday it was forced to cancel a rally planned for Saturday after police withheld approval.
The crisis in the former British colony threatens to distract from Chinese President Xi Jinping’s celebrations of 70 years of Communist Party rule on Oct. 1, which will highlight the country’s rebound from imperialism, war and inner turmoil. Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive, Carrie Lam, earlier this week called for a dialogue with the opposition, while refusing to rule out invoking a sweeping colonial-era law that allows for easier arrests, deportations, censorship and property seizures.
“We still keep on our fight and we shall not surrender,” Wong told reporters as he and Chow emerged from court after being released on bail on charges related by unlawful assembly. “I urge the international community to send a message to President Xi, sending troops or using emergency ordinance is not the way out.”
The summer’s political unrest has been the worst since the city’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, with demonstrations that have resulted in often-violent clashes between protesters and police. Political observers said the moves ran the risk of drawing more people into the streets for unauthorized rallies, which can more easily get out of hand.
“Such actions are tantamount to inciting trouble at a time when the government is talking about dialogue and trying to lower the temperature,” said Kevin Yam, a political commentator and member of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Progressive Lawyers Group. “You can’t on the one hand say, ‘Let’s lower the temperature, let’s talk, let’s make nice,’ and on the other hand do something like this.”
Ronny Tong, a member of Lam’s advisory Executive Council, acknowledged that “the timing could have been better,” said said he had faith in Hong Kong’s rule of law and the police.
“The most important thing is that Hong Kong is a place where the rule of law still is alive and kicking,” Tong said. “We have a very able and independent judiciary. And the police know that. They know that unless they have a reasonable chance of a conviction, they would not try to arrest somebody at random only to give out a political message.”
Separately, Reuters reported Chinese authorities had earlier this month rejected a Hong Kong government proposal to formally withdraw extradition legislation that sparked the protests. The bill’s withdrawal and an independent inquiry into the unrest were seen as the most feasible compromises, Reuters reported, citing an unnamed senior Hong Kong government official.
Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. warned employees not to take part in a general strike planned for next week, after the airline’s chief executive, Rupert Hogg, stepped down to take responsibility for the uproar over airline staff’s participation in earlier actions. Two other organizers of recent protests, including CHRF leader Jimmy Sham and Max Chung, were attacked Thursday in the latest of several reported incidents of mob violence against activists.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen -- who has helped resuscitate her re-election prospects by criticizing Beijing’s handling of the protests -- was among the first officials to express concern about the arrests. She called on authorities to comply with their promises of democracy, freedom and human rights to the city’s people, according to a statement from her office.
While the three arrested activists are among Hong Kong’s most prominent opposition voices --- Wong was the subjectof a Netflix documentary titled “Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower” -- none was seen as a central figure in the recent protests. The decentralized movement relies on social media apps and chat rooms to propose and revise protest plans on the fly.
Still, Wong has come under scrutiny for his meetings with U.S. officials, with China’s foreign ministry singling out one particular meeting with a U.S. diplomat. Wong was also planning to travel to the U.S. in September to speak out against what he described as authorities’ plans to establish “martial law” ahead of the National Day holiday.
The latest charges against Wong resulted from his role in a June 21 rally, in which he encouraged demonstrators to surround the police headquarters complex in Wan Chai, days after his release from jail on separate protest-related charges. Chan, the pro-independence founder of the banned Hong Kong National Party, said in a post on his personal Facebook page that he was stopped at the city’s airport departures area on Thursday night.
“They’re trying to plant a seed of fear in people’s minds, so that people will stop from attending protests, either the one tomorrow or ones in the future,” said Alvin Yeung, a pro-democracy lawmaker. “But my judgment is they won’t succeed, because Hong Kong people are very brave.”