The arrest of Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, along with former chairman of Hong Kong’s Labor Party Lee Cheuk-yan and former chairman of the Democratic Party Yeung Sum, marks yet another major setback for Hong Kong.
To arrest young people throwing Molotov cocktails and bricks is legitimate, even though the police brutality over the past eight months has been shockingly disproportionate and heavy-handed and not a single police officer has been held to account for their violence. Nevertheless, some protesters in Hong Kong have committed acts that in any society would be regarded as criminal. And even if one sympathizes with the underlying causes of protesters’ anger – frustration at a government that refuses to listen, desperation at a police force that terrorizes them – it is difficult to argue that those who have committed genuine offenses should not be held to account. But that is not an argument that can remotely be made in the case of the three arrests on February 28.
Jimmy Lai, aged 71, is a successful entrepreneur, founder of Next Media and publisher of Hong Kong’s only Chinese-language pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily. He has been charged with illegal assembly for participating in a peaceful protest on August 31 last year. A further charge – of “intimidation” – has been filed for an incident at the June 4, 2017 Tiananmen massacre commemoration, when he had a brief verbal altercation with a reporter from the pro-Beijing Oriental Daily. From the video of that incident, such a charge is an absurdity. And if verbal altercations are to be criminalized, why has no Hong Kong police officer been charged for calling protesters “cockroaches” and other abusive terms every day for the last eight months – verbal abuse with far more dangerous undertones than anything Lai said?
Lee Cheuk-yan, aged 63 and Yeung Sum, aged 72 are, like Lai, hardly dangerous radicals. They are mainstream, distinguished, internationally respected peaceful pro-democracy politicians. Yeung is an academic, a lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, and a former legislator who took over the leadership of the Democratic Party from its founder, barrister Martin Lee, known as the “grandfather” of Hong Kong’s democracy movement. Indeed, Yeung represented the mainstreamers and was criticized by some pro-democracy activists for being too moderate. Lee is a trade unionist and also a former legislator and leader of his party.
Arresting mainstream politicians, retired legislators, and a media mogul for peaceful protest marks a sharp escalation in the assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms.
It is worth emphasizing that not a single police officer has been prosecuted or even investigated over police violence, despite reams of video footage of police severely beating unarmed protesters, spraying teargas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets at close range into people’s faces and on a few occasions using live ammunition. Not even the police officer who deliberately drove his motorbike into crowds has been disciplined, nor have those responsible for permanently blinding Indonesian journalist Veby Megah Indah, shot in the eye with a rubber bullet.
The secretary of justice, who is also chief prosecutor in Hong Kong, is selectively abusing Hong Kong’s vague and outdated public order legislation to intimidate and lock up political opponents. The Hong Kong government has repeatedly weaponized this legislation to punish dissent in recent years. Their campaign of lawfare against the pro-democracy movement threatens to undermine the rule of law – and as the last governor of Hong Kong, Lord Patten, said in his recent Inaugural Paddy Ashdown Memorial Lecture, “If some of the police and the government seem to be flouting the rule of law, is it a surprise that others follow this appalling example?”
The threat to the rule of law in Hong Kong is a direct threat to Hong Kong’s very existence as an international financial center. As a new Hong Kong Watch report launched earlier this week indicates, Hong Kong remains irreplaceable for China as a financial center, and is a critical hub for international firms in the region. It is Britain’s second largest trading partner in Asia. Yet what sets the city apart is its values – the rule of law, freedom of information, and other freedoms. The more these are undermined, the less Hong Kong will be able to serve its function as China’s financial window to the world. And that will not benefit China, because none of China’s other financial centers have anything remotely resembling the rule of law. It would also have a direct impact on British interests. There are many businesses that contribute considerably to the public purse who will suffer if Hong Kong’s judicial system loses its credibility, not least HSBC.
Britain has a responsibility to speak up for Hong Kong. Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty lodged at the United Nations, Britain is obligated to monitor the protection of the freedoms that were guaranteed to Hong Kongers before the handover. What can it realistically do?
First, Britain must call for the charges against Lai, Lee, and Yeung to be dropped immediately. Their prosecution, if it proceeds, will send a chill not only through pro-democracy activists but far wider, for anyone who cherishes Hong Kong as the open city it has until recently been.
Second, Britain should call for reform of the arcane colonial Public Order Ordinance. This law, which has been criticized by the United Nations and is inconsistent with international human rights standards, is the chief tool in the Hong Kong government’s lawfare campaign and has been used to curtain freedom of assembly and criminalize peaceful protest. It must change.
Third, Britain and others should seriously move toward introducing targeted Magnitsky-style sanctions against individuals in the Hong Kong and Chinese governments and the police who are responsible for abuses of human rights. And if the Hong Kong government continues to reject calls for an independent inquiry into police brutality, then an international investigation should be established.
The arrest of these three establishment figures is a wake-up call that says we can no longer turn a blind eye to the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms. Coming just three days after the 10-year jail sentence imposed by a Chinese court on Hong Kong bookseller and Swedish national Gui Minhai, who had been kidnapped by Chinese agents in Thailand five years ago, held in detention in China, and forced to make a confession on state television, it is a reminder that the Chinese Communist Party is increasingly a threat not only to its own citizens’ freedoms, but overseas nationals’ as well. It is time to prevent further political arrests in the city that has become the frontline in the fight for freedom.
Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chairman of Hong Kong Watch.