Under Cover of Coronavirus, Hong Kong Cracks Down on Protest Movement

HONG KONG — As the world has been engulfed by the coronavirus pandemic, the authorities in Hong Kong have arrested prominent pro-democracy figures in politics, civil society and the media, waging a broad crackdown on the demonstrations that convulsed the city last year.

The government’s campaign is in tandem with recent efforts by mainland China’s central government, itself a core target of antigovernment demonstrators, to assert more stridently what it perceives as its right to intervene in the affairs of the semiautonomous Chinese territory.

These moves have raised concerns in Hong Kong that China’s ruling Communist Party is pressing for restrictions that would curb the protests, which were among the biggest challenges for China’s leader, Xi Jinping. Many fear that such restrictions, which could include a widely contested national security law, would accelerate the erosion of civil liberties in Hong Kong, a former British colony that enjoys freedoms unseen on the mainland.

This year, the coronavirus epidemic has helped mute antigovernment demonstrations in Hong Kong. But the government’s crackdown could revive the protests, particularly if the local outbreak remains under control and social distancing rules are eased.

Here is a look at the key recent steps, and what they could mean for the coming months.

On Saturday, the police arrested 15 leading pro-democracy figures on charges of organizing, publicizing and taking part in several protests between August and October that had not been permitted by the authorities.

Analysts familiar with Beijing’s thinking have said the roundup was an early step in what would be a broad crackdown.

“Beijing is determined to end the chaos in Hong Kong once and for all,” Lau Siu-kai, vice president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a powerful Beijing advisory group, said in an interview.

The arrests quickly drew condemnation from the United States and other foreign governments as well as legal groups in Britain and elsewhere. Human rights groups accused Beijing of taking advantage of the world’s diverted attention during the pandemic and Hong Kong’s new limits on public gatherings to clamp down on the opposition.

Some of those arrested in the sweep belong to an older generation of more moderate politicians. They included Martin Lee, 81, a senior lawyer who helped draft the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, in the 1980s and is often called Hong Kong’s Father of Democracy, and Margaret Ng, 72, another legal heavyweight.

Other activists have already vowed to return to the streets. The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized many of the city’s mass rallies, said on Sunday that it was seeking police permission to hold a march on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to Chinese rule from British.

At the heart of the protest movement is Hong Kong’s increasingly fraught relationship with the ruling Communist Party, which has sought to tighten its grip over Hong Kong.

The party has for years preferred to push its agenda in Hong Kong from behind the scenes, through its allies in government and in pro-establishment parties. But Beijing has signaled its impatience with this softer approach in recent weeks by raising the profile of the central government’s office in Hong Kong.

That office waded into a legislative dispute last week by publicly criticizing Dennis Kwok, a pro-democracy lawmaker, for stalling the debate of several bills, including a law that would make it an offense to insult the Chinese anthem. The office accused Mr. Kwok of abusing his power and violating his oath of office.

The censure from Beijing was such an unusual step that some critics feared that it would jeopardize Hong Kong’s constitution, which lays out limits on the central government’s role. In particular, lawyers cited an article in the constitution that states that no department of the central government can interfere in affairs that Hong Kong administers on its own.

Beijing has insisted that the law in question, Article 22, did not apply to its office in Hong Kong, and that it was entitled to supervise and voice its opinions despite an arrangement that guarantees the city a high degree of autonomy until 2047.

Adding to the confusion was an embarrassing flip-flop by the government of Hong Kong, which when urged to state its position on the matter, issued three news releases with conflicting views in the span of several hours on Saturday night. It eventually concurred with the central government’s office.

The war of words over the central government’s role in Hong Kong is not merely about Mr. Kwok.

Underlying the dispute is a broader concern that Beijing will meddle in legislative elections scheduled for September in which pro-democracy politicians, riding the broad support of the antigovernment movement, are expected to snap up more seats. Such an outcome would be unfavorable to Beijing.

China has roundly rejected charges that it is unduly interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs. On Tuesday, the office in charge of Hong Kong affairs in Beijing issued three statements asserting the central government’s authority over the territory. It criticized opposition members including Joshua Wong, a prominent activist, and Jimmy Lai, the publisher of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper, who was also arrested on Saturday.

The office also accused Mr. Kwok, the lawmaker, of trying to push for Hong Kong’s independence and encouraging foreign interference by supporting U.S. legislation that authorized possible sanctions against Hong Kong officials.

The criticism of Mr. Kwok has raised fears that the authorities are laying the groundwork to bar him and others from running in the legislative elections. Several candidates were disqualified in 2016 after local officials determined they held pro-independence views. And six lawmakers who won seats were later removed for altering their oaths of office, after a rare intervention by Beijing.

“The worrying thing is I can see signs this time around that the government may make wider use of so-called disqualification powers to stop pro-democratic camp people from running,” said Eric Cheung, a law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong.

Beijing and its pro-government allies in the city have in recent weeks urged lawmakers to pass national security laws that residents worry would allow the mainland authorities to further encroach upon Hong Kong’s civic freedoms.

The issue of national security is likely to hit a raw nerve in the city. The government’s last attempt, in 2003, to introduce Article 23 — which states that Hong Kong should enact laws to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition and subversion against China’s central government — ended in failure after a mass protest.

Nearly two decades later, the Hong Kong government has repeatedly said it has a constitutional responsibility to implement the law.

But critics fear that any such legislation would empower the government to target critics of the Communist Party. They point to broad language in the law that would bar foreign bodies from conducting political activities and criminalize the theft of vaguely defined state secrets as examples of such overreach.

Luo Huining, Beijing’s top representative in Hong Kong, said last week that national security has always been a shortcoming in the city since it was returned to Chinese control in 1997. Mr. Luo, who in recent years oversaw a purge of senior Communist Party officials in the corruption-plagued Shanxi Province, assumed the post of director of the Liaison Office in January. It was part of a sudden leadership reshuffle that Beijing had ordered for Hong Kong, demoting officials who presided over months of chaos and replacing them with Xi Jinping’s hard-line enforcers.

Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Beijing.

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