Letter from Hong Kong

“Rather than be intimidated, I expect Hong Kong people will be more resolute and persistent in defending their civil liberties”

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Xi Jinping (second right) is shown around Huawei’s London offices during his 2015 visit to the UK (©Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The arrests of news media tycoon Jimmy Lai and pro-democracy party leaders Yeung Sum and Lee Cheuk-yan by the Hong Kong police have sent shockwaves across the world. The government of Carrie Lam was widely seen to be acting under orders from the Chinese government to silence critics and to quash the eight-month protest movement lest it return with a vengeance when the coronavirus epidemic is over.

Hong Kong’s last British Governor, Lord Patten, condemned the arrests as outrageous, because the three men were known around the world as brave advocates of free speech, accountable government and political liberty. The arrests would send yet another signal to the world that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is intent on throttling decency and freedom in Hong Kong. The US government urged the Hong Kong authorities not to use law enforcement selectively for political purposes.

Rather than be intimidated, I expect Hong Kong people will be more resolute and persistent in defending their civil liberties and opposing the unpopular policies of Carrie Lam, particularly when confronting despicable brutality from the police. Clashes with the police broke out in Mong Kok three days after the arrests and more than 100 people were arrested. Like a bad penny, they will keep turning up.

During the eight-month protests triggered by the now-withdrawn Extradition Bill, more than 7,000 people were arrested. Many were beaten up and injured by the police, and yet not a single officer has been arrested and charged. Thus many Hong Kong people harbour intense animosity towards officers who are seen not as guardians of the law but as a political weapon used by Carrie Lam against her political enemies.

Apart from widespread assaults and arrests, the police have threatened journalists and news organisations offering unfavourable coverage. Numerous letters have been sent to the public broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong alleging that programmes have portrayed the police in a negative light. Likewise, they have complained to the mass circulation Apple Daily, which is owned by Jimmy Lai.

Police often targeted and assaulted journalists covering protests, attacking them with pepper spray, tear gas, riot shields and batons. The Hong Kong Journalists Association has filed numerous complaints with the toothless police watchdog, the Independent Police Complaints Commission.  It has also filed a judicial review against the Commissioner of Police and the Secretary of Justice on a wide range of operational failings regarding police interactions with the press. They included police officers hiding their identities, threatening reporters with arrest, using high-intensity and strobe lighting to interfere with cameras, physically blocking journalists and subjecting them to verbal abuse with foul and insulting language.

Tactics used by the CCP against its political enemies in Hong Kong are not as harsh and brutal as those deployed in mainland China, where dissidents are beaten up, tortured, locked up without access to lawyers and family members, put under surveillance, prevented from communicating with the outside world, barred from seeing visitors, and sometimes, made to disappear. In Hong Kong, under the policy of “One country, two systems” promised in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the people were given a higher level of freedom, personal safety and the rule of law than the people in the mainland, but that is diminishing fast. Under the authoritarian rule of Xi Jinping, Hong Kong people look to the future with foreboding.

Many in the international community believe Hong Kong is at the forefront of a battle against a dictatorial and barbaric regime. Although Hong Kong is a tiny city, the people are remarkably resilient and are determined to defend their freedoms, come what may. I hope our friends in Britain will offer us a helping hand.