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On Tuesday, Hong Kong authorities arrested and detained overnight more than 50 pro-democracy activists and politicians. After more than 40 hours of detention, many were released with their travel documents confiscated but face the potential of years in prison. This mass crackdown shows Beijing is not afraid of showing its teeth and acting like a thug. It will not stop until it has eliminated all opposing voices in Hong Kong. There is no chance for coexistence — and it’s time the international community recognized that.
Those arrested this week were the participants and organizers of the primary elections for the legislative council originally scheduled in September 2020 but postponed by the Hong Kong government. The government absurdly claims that, since the aim of the primary was to gain the majority in the council, the pro-democracy camp would then veto the budget and government’s bills, obstructing the government’s operations and thereby constituting a subversive act. What was once a constitutional power and right exercised by legislators is now a crime, with a maximum penalty of lifelong imprisonment.
The arrests reflect how the scope of political persecution has inflated. The government claimed that the national security law only targets radical and violent protesters, but the law has turned out to be stricter and more suppressive. One of those arrested was Jeffrey Andrews, the first person of color to become a social worker in Hong Kong. He did not advocate any sabotage of “national security.” When he was running as a primary candidate in the Kowloon West district, his principal policy platform was racial harmony and dialogue with the government. Yet his mere involvement in the primary led to an arrest warrant.
Joshua Wong, my former colleague and co-founding member of the disbanded political organization Demosisto, is also facing undetermined years of imprisonment. He was sentenced to 13½ months in prison last month because of his participation in an unauthorized peaceful protest in 2019. On the day of the mass arrest, the police raided his home and collected evidence while he was in jail. If the government presses charges against him in this case and convicts him, he will likely serve several more years behind bars.
One of the major reasons the Chinese Communist Party has unashamedly dared to tear off the mask of promises it had given Hong Kong is the international community’s inaction. Because of China’s ever-growing economic machine, many democratic countries have turned a blind eye to its human rights record; they may talk the talk diplomatically, but refuse to walk the walk.
After the mass arrest, European Union spokesman Peter Stano appealed for the immediate release of the arrestees. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas urged the Chinese government to respect the Hong Kong people and live up to the rule of law. But the Hong Kong people who are suffering from autocratic bullying and arbitrary arrests have seen enough of this lip service. Just a couple of days before, the European Union signed the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with China after Beijing’s empty promise on forced labor.
What we need for the people of Hong Kong, and democracy in general, is the determination to put human rights above trade interests. We need concrete policies that hold the authoritarian CCP accountable. Statements of concern and condemnation are not enough — and trade or investment agreements with autocracies are even worse. For Beijing, these signatures on agreements are green lights to continue their actions with impunity. The European Parliament should resolutely reject the investment deal to demonstrate leadership in the fight against authoritarianism.
On the other side of the world, the Biden administration should continue to consolidate the transatlantic cooperation to combat China’s authoritarian expansion. Global issues, such as public health and climate change, should be seen as ways to boost cooperation between democracies and pressure authoritarian regimes. The incoming administration should not fall into the trap of believing the CCP’s empty promises. Constraining the CCP’s expansion should be a priority of all of the free world.
It’s painful to witness the deterioration of my beloved city and the suffering of my friends. I know most of the arrested pro-democracy figures, and I am worried about them. This is just the start of legal proceedings that are bound to be prolonged and torturous. An unfavorable outcome would result in years of jail time. As an exiled activist, I am unable to reach out for fear of putting them in additional danger of being accused of assisting my advocacy work. I am unable to visit and help them in person, like I used to do. Watching them from afar, what I can offer as support is to amplify their causes.
It’s time for the world to stand up and defend our shared universal values with them, not with feeble words but with real actions, shoulder to shoulder.