BEIJING HAS LONG shown its impatience for Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy under the former British colony’s 1997 ‘one country, two systems’ post-colonial settlement. In recent years, it has attempted to compress the 50-year transition before it formally assumes full sovereignty over the city, moves opposed in the streets by Hong Kong residents who fear the loss of guaranteed freedoms and civic rights.
The co-ordinated arrests this weekend of at least 14 prominent ‘pro-Democracy’ activists, including Martin Lee, the lawyer and former legislator known as the founding father of Hong Kong’s democratic movement, and the anti-establishment media tycoon Jimmy Lai, are just the latest signal that Beijing’s impatience has worn thin.
The group have been detained in connection with the mass protests that roiled the city last year and are likely to face charges of organising and taking part in unlawful assemblies in August and October. They join more than 7,000 arrested for their involvement in the protests since last June. Many are charged with rioting which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail.
More chilling is the unprecedented statement from Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong that preceded the round-up. It said it was not bound by Hong Kong’s laws and therefore has the right to ‘supervise’ the implementation of ‘one country, two systems.
The message is blunt: one Party rules over all.
Luo Huining, Beijing’s relatively recently installed top representative in Hong Kong, has called for revisions to the legal system in the name of national security, and stricter enforcement of social order.
These latest arrests, unprecedented in their scale and prominence, mark the start of a renewed attempt to assert Beijing’s authority that could bring Hong Kong’s residents back into the streets, from which only the coronavirus pandemic had removed them.
They are likely to be treated with a heavy hand, at a time when the rest of the world’s attention is focused elsewhere.