When China and the UK were negotiating the handover of Hong Kong in the 1980s, Martin Lee helped to write the legal framework that would underpin the future governance of the Asian financial hub, earning him the moniker of the territory’s “Father of Democracy”.
On Saturday, the 81-year-old lawyer and founder of Hong Kong’s opposition Democratic party was arrested along with 14 other pro-democracy activists as Beijing seeks to tighten its control over the city after a wave of anti-government protests last year.
With the world distracted by the coronavirus pandemic, Beijing’s representatives in the city have ramped up pressure on the city’s pro-democracy movement ahead of parliamentary elections in September. Aside from the arrests, China has moved to curb the territory’s treasured special autonomy and is suspected to be behind a reshuffle of the city’s government.
The city’s young protesters, who made global headlines last year for their fierce clashes with the police, have yet to respond to the latest moves after their numbers were thinned by a police crackdown last year. But many believe Beijing’s brazen interference will escalate simmering tensions in a city already scarred by last year’s unrest, the worst in decades.
“My arrest is beautiful because it gives me the opportunity to say: ‘Don’t worry about me, worry about Hong Kong and . . . how Beijing is pulling all the strings here now’,” Mr Lee told the Financial Times. “Who is governing Hong Kong now? The Communists.”
Under a “one country two systems” framework that Mr Lee helped to write, Beijing granted the territory a high degree of autonomy for 50 years by preserving Hong Kong’s civil freedoms and independent legal system grounded in English common law when it reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.
The principle that the Hong Kong people would be allowed to govern themselves was enshrined in Article 22 of the city’s mini constitution, known as the Basic Law, which states that no department of the central government shall interfere in the territory’s internal affairs.
But last Friday, Beijing’s highest representative body in the territory, the Liaison Office, insisted it was not subject to this clause in Hong Kong’s constitution. The Hong Kong government at first challenged the Liaison Office’s interpretation. But after a series of contradictory statements, the city’s government backed down, worrying legal scholars who said this effectively cleared the way for Beijing to directly intervene in the administration of Hong Kong.
“Even the most clear wording of the Basic Law can be twisted for the purposes of political expediency. That is dangerous and worrying,” said Johannes Chan, a legal scholar and former law school dean at the University of Hong Kong.
“This is a major watershed because it is a fundamental overhaul of the Hong Kong political system and the interpretation of ‘one country, two systems’,” said Samson Yuen, a political scientist at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong Bar Association, the top legal body representing the territory’s barristers, argued the recent comments from Beijing and Hong Kong authorities were “plainly inconsistent” with past statements affirming that the Liaison Office was an office of the central government under Article 22.
“This is the beginning of the end for Hong Kong. If they destroy the rule of law, which they now intend to do with Article 22 . . . everything we have will be gone,” said Jimmy Lai, who founded the city’s most outspoken pro-democracy newspaper in the city and was also arrested on Saturday. “Without the rule of law, we won’t have freedom of speech, we won’t have property rights, we won’t have freedom of religion, we won’t have a lot of things.”
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The Liaison Office subsequently released a statement reiterating it had “supervisory powers” over Hong Kong while the territory’s chief executive Carrie Lam apologised for the inconsistent stance of her government and confirmed Beijing’s position.
“Beijing’s latest actions should be understood as part of a long, drawn-out yet unfinished political project to nullify ‘one country, two systems’,” said Ching Kwan Lee, professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
The first distinct sign of Beijing’s intent to exercise more direct control over the territory came in a 2014 white paper that said China had “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong.
Earlier this year, Beijing took an important step in realising this ambition when it replaced the Communist party’s top two officials in Hong Kong with hawks seen as confidantes of China’s president Xi Jinping. In a further move, Ms Lam on Wednesday appointed five new ministers in a cabinet reshuffle that political analysts said was part of Beijing’s clampdown on the Asian financial hub.
Beijing’s growing influence has also been apparent in the government’s increasing crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, say activists. During the protests last year, critics argued that police used the rule of law, which has long distinguished Hong Kong from mainland China, as a weapon against the protesters.
Demonstrators faced the full force of the city’s tough laws governing protests and rioting while the police seemed to enjoy immunity from prosecution despite allegations of brutality, claimed protesters. The police force has defended the actions of its officers as lawful and justified.
The police have arrested almost 8,000 people and brought 1,200 before the courts, said the Democratic party’s Mr Lee. “Fair enough, if you say you’ve got evidence against all these people, arrest them. But what about the other side?” he said, noting that videos of police beating up defenceless people covered in blood went viral during last year’s protests.
“That is a criminal offence but not a single police officer has been investigated or prosecuted.”
China said on Friday it would prosecute a foreign national for the first time for allegedly interfering in Hong Kong affairs. Lee Henley Hu Xiang, a Belize national, was accused of providing funds to “meddle”. Beijing has routinely accused the US, UK and other countries of inciting the Hong Kong protests.
For the moment, Hong Kong’s street protests have disappeared as the pandemic forces people to stay home. The coronavirus outbreak also gives the government a convenient public health excuse to lock down the city, said Lingnan University’s Mr Yuen. For their part, the youthful “frontliners” who led last year’s protests are feeling battered and reluctant to come out after many of them were arrested last year.
But in the longer term, the seething opposition could erupt into street marches again if Hong Kong’s unpopular government continued to be perceived as taking orders from the Communist party, said analysts.
“We must find a way to continue . . . If we give up now, our injured brothers and sisters won’t forgive us,” said one front-line protester who spoke on condition of anonymity because he fears arrest. “We must find a balance between combating the coronavirus outbreak and fighting for democracy in Hong Kong.”