Prominent Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong and other opposition figures have been arrested as the city’s authorities try to clamp down on planned demonstrations to mark the fifth anniversary of pro-democracy protests.
Mr Wong, 22, who was scheduled to speak about the protests in the United States next month, was among well-known pro-democracy activists arrested by police on Thursday and Friday. The others included Agnes Chow, another prominent member of the 2014 Occupy movement, independence advocate Andy Chan and Hong Kong District Councillor Rick Hui.
The arrests appeared to be part of a broader push back against the largely leaderless protest movement, which flared up in June over now-suspended legislation to allow extraditions before widening into a broader push for more democracy. Also on Friday, the Civil Human Rights Front, organiser of the biggest recent demonstrations, said it was forced to cancel a rally to mark the fifth anniversary of an election edict from Beijing that sparked the 2014 Occupy protests after police withheld approval.
The crisis in the former British colony threatens to distract from Chinese President Xi Jinping's celebrations of 70 years of Communist Party rule on October 1, which will highlight the country's rebound from imperialism, war and inner turmoil. Hong Kong's embattled chief executive, Carrie Lam, earlier this week called for a dialogue with the opposition, while refusing to rule out invoking a sweeping colonial-era law easing arrests, deportations, censorship and property seizures.
The summer’s political unrest has been the worst since the city’s return to Chinese rule in 1997, with demonstrations that have resulted in often violent clashes between protesters and police. Political observers said the moves ran the risk of drawing more people onto the streets for unauthorised rallies, which can more easily get out of hand.
“Such actions are tantamount to inciting trouble at a time when the government is talking about dialogue and trying to lower the temperature,” said Kevin Yam, a political commentator and member of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Progressive Lawyers Group. “You can’t on the one hand say, ‘Let’s lower the temperature, let’s talk, let’s make nice,’ and on the other hand do something like this.”
Separately, Cathay Pacific Airways warned employees not to take part in a general strike planned for next week, after the airline’s chief executive, Rupert Hogg, stepped down to take responsibility for the uproar over airline staff’s participation in earlier actions. Two other organisers of recent protests, including CHRF leader Jimmy Sham and Max Chung, said they were attacked on Thursday in the latest of several reported incidents of mob violence against activists.
Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who has helped resuscitate her re-election prospects by criticising Beijing’s handling of the protests, was among the first officials to express concern about the arrests. She called on authorities to comply with their promises of democracy, freedom and human rights to the city’s people, according to a statement from her office.
While the three arrested activists are among Hong Kong’s most prominent opposition voices, none has been seen as a central figure in the recent protests. The decentralised movement relies on social media apps and chat rooms to propose, vote on and revise protest plans on the fly.
Still, Mr Wong has come under scrutiny for his meetings with US officials, with China’s foreign ministry urging Americans to “draw a clear line with all anti-Chinese rioters, stop sending wrong signals to illegal violators, stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs”.
The latest charges against Mr Wong resulted from his role in a June 21 rally, in which he encouraged demonstrators to surround the police headquarters complex in Wan Chai, days after his release from jail on separate protest-related charges. His party Demosisto said Mr Wong was on his way to a subway station when he “was suddenly pushed into a private car on the street”. It said the group’s lawyers were working on the case.
Mr Chan, the pro-independence founder of the banned Hong Kong National Party, said in a post on his personal Facebook page that he was stopped at the city’s airport departures area on Thursday night. Police said the Organised Crime and Triad Bureau arrested a 29-year-old man with the last name Chan at the airport for participating in riots and assaulting police, Radio Television Hong Kong reported, citing a police case with matching information.
Joseph Cheng, a local pro-democracy activist and retired political science professor, said Ms Lam’s effort to contain the unrest could backfire if the arrests drew more people into the streets.
“There will be a lot of anger against these arrests,” Mr Cheng said. “It’s generally believed that the Carrie Lam administration is sort of cleaning up the mess, so to speak, as instructed by Xi Jinping. And she would like to bring the situation under control by the October 1 National Day.”