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Hong Kong activist arrests show China is afraid

Beijing is worried pro-democracy candidates could sweep Legislative Council elections

| Hong Kong

Joseph Yu Shek Cheng is a retired political science professor and a long-term activist in Hong Kong.

On April 18 the Hong Kong police arrested 15 prominent pro-democracy activists for organizing and participating in illegal rallies during the anti-government protests that roiled the city in the second half of last year. Four of the 15 were organizers, but the other 11 simply assumed prominent positions in them.

The hundreds of thousands of people who took part in these rallies refused to accept the police's decision not to grant permission for them: they believed that freedoms of assembly and protest are important civic rights not to be denied.

The arrests, months afterwards, show that China, through the Hong Kong government, is trying to reassert its power and prepare for elections to the legislative council later this year. It fears a repeat of the pro-democracy camp's landslide in last year's district council elections.

The Chinese authorities have reason to be afraid. On June 9, 2019, more than a million people marched in a protest rally opposing a bill which would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China; this was followed by another protest rally with 2 million people a week later.

Chief executive Carrie Lam's administration agreed first to shelve and then drop the legislation, but it stubbornly refused to set up an independent commission of inquiry, and the protests continued for six months.

The community's strong sympathy for the pro-democracy movement led to its landslide victory in the district council elections last November, winning almost 390 seats out of 450, with a majority in 17 of 18 district councils.

As the Chinese authorities have maintained their hard line of no concessions, no dialogue, a crackdown on the pro-democracy movement has become the logical option, hence the arrests.

Demonstrators marches in protest demanding authorities scrap a proposed extradition bill on June 9, 2019.   © Reuters

Typically the Chinese authorities uphold a hard line when the domestic and international environments deteriorate. Their top priority is to preserve the Party regime and they want to indicate that they are willing to pay the price, including international outcry against the arrests. China hopes to deter pro-democracy voters, lowering their expectations, and to urge people to treasure the stability and prosperity which its policy program offers.

Beijing understands that a crackdown will not win back the hearts and minds of Hong Kong people. It may even further damage the performance of the pro-establishment camp in the Legislative Council elections in September, a significant risk.

Despite the undemocratic electoral system in which only 40 seats out of 70 are elected by universal suffrage -- 30 are functional constituency seats voted for by business and professional groups -- there might still be a small chance for the pro-democracy camp to capture a majority in the legislature. In this scenario, it could paralyze the government.

The pro-democracy camp has threatened to block the budgets of the Carrie Lam administration and the planned Article 23 legislation banning treason, secession, sedition, subversion if it wins a majority. Frequent confrontations with Lam will be likely.

The camp is divided between the moderates and radicals, though. The Chinese authorities may try to divide and rule, but more drastic measures like disqualifying some radical pro-democracy legislators and the threat of emergency rule are on the cards.

There have been other recent mainland attempts to reassert its authority in Hong Kong. The Central Liaison Office and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing have claimed a supervisory role over Hong Kong, including its judiciary and legislature. These two offices severely condemned pro-democracy legislators for their delaying tactics in the legislature. But Hong Kong's Bar Association and the pro-democracy camp refused to accept this supervisory role, leading to a potential constitutional crisis.

The Chinese leadership wants to tell Hong Kong's people that it, not they, defines the limits of the territory's autonomy and the one country, two systems model and that they have to accept this.

The community is therefore faced with two options: bow to the pressure or continue to engage in political struggle to preserve its dignity and its rights. The pro-democracy activists have made their choice, although they know that the sacrifice will be severe and short-term achievements may not exist.

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