China Readies the Boot in Hong Kong

Arrest of popular media figure for three-year-old offense spells trouble

The Hong Kong government has been urging calm and solidarity in the face of the coronavirus challenge. But it has begun to use the virus as a partial cover for very divisive action: vengeance on high-level activists who participated in the eight months of protests which began last July.

It also appears to be firing a shot across the bows of media critical of the government and Beijing. On February 28 police arrested Jimmy Lai, the high-profile publisher of the popular newspaper Apple Daily, on two very disparate counts. 

The first relates to Lai’s participation in an allegedly illegal demonstration last August 31. Hong Kong people are supposed to enjoy the right of peaceful assembly but in practice, organizers are required to inform the police and get a letter of “no objection” from the authorities. Otherwise, any such gathering is deemed illegal. This in effect gives the police the power to make law as they go along, including declaring a half to authorised demonstrations at will.

In this case, the organizers of a planned rally had called it off after they had been refused permission. But a Christian group arranged a prayer meeting and procession in its place. Lai, a Roman Catholic, was among attendees. Now he has been arrested along with two stalwarts of the pro-democracy movement, former legislators Lee Cheuk-yan and Yung Sum. Lee is a labor activist and Yeung a former chairman of the Democratic Party. Several thousand attended but there were no arrests at the time and these three were not organizers. Thus the notion that this is less about law enforcement rather than political oppression is hard to argue,

Making abuse of process even more transparent is that on the very same day, Lai was charged with another offense: intimidation of a journalist by using foul language. This allegation was from the rival Oriental Press group and dates back to June 2017. The Oriental group is owned by the Ma family, whose wealth is believed to have originated in the heroin trade in the 1960s and 1970s and which has always been seen as on the side of government. 

This prosecution, 32 months after the event, can be seen as a confluence between the Oriental Daily’s rivalry with Apple (which it outsells by a small margin with both over a million readers a day) with United Front tactics against Beijing’s most high-profile media critic in Hong Kong. (Lai has other media interests there and in Taiwan).

Growing concern over Communist Party authoritarian tactics being employed in Hong Kong has been further aroused by Beijing’s recent appointments to oversee the territory – a new head for the Liaison Office, which is the central government’s on-the-ground presence in Hong Kong, and its boss, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council. Both appointments were of more senior persons than their predecessors and are known to President Xi Jinping. 

The arrest of Lai and others is probably the beginning of many more which could go for a long time, just as protesters in the so-called 2014 Umbrella Movement, five weeks of peaceful demonstrations and sit-ins involving up to one million people over the central government’s refusal to live up to its 1997 pledge of universal suffrage, weren’t prosecuted till years afterwards, with the aim of jailing or disbarring those who dare stand up to Beijing and its "devout Catholic" gauleiter Carrie Lam.

All of these actions are a clear demonstration that Beijing has learned nothing from the November electoral debacle in which pro-Beijing candidates lost 17 of the territory’s 18 district councils. Instead, Beijing’s leaders apparently prefer to believe that since only 2.9 million voters turned out, the other 4 million-odd citizens back the government, having no idea of the law of representative samples. That is worrisome because Hong Kong’s rebellious citizens see the situation in an entirely different light and are likely to react impolitely to the attempt at intimidation.

More evidence of the moves to oppression was seen in a huge rise in the 2020-21 budget announced on February 26. Although Hong Kong already has far more police by head of population than any other city, the numbers are to be yet further expanded, from 35,000 to 38,000. The total cost is to rise another 9 percent, making a 25 percent increase in just two years, with the budget for police acquisition of equipment and vehicles is more than doubling to HK$538 million. The force is being equipped with even heavier weapons than the heavy-duty protective gear, water cannon, tear gas, rubber and live bullets used repeatedly against mass demonstrations last year. Overall, recurrent spending under the heading “Security” is set at HK$55 billion or about 2 percent of GDP, which is as much as some European countries spend on both military and police forces together.

In short, as Mao promised, as the Chinese communist revolution reaches once-separate Hong Kong, power grows out of the barrel of a gun – not the ballot box.