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With Hong Kong arrests, Beijing outlaws democracy itself

On Jan. 6, Hong Kong authorities arrested more than 50 pro-democracy activists and politicians who participated in primary elections last year, charging them with "subverting state power" under the national security law that China forced on the city last year.

The big picture: The arrests indicateChinese Communist Party leaders see any form of true participatory government as an illegitimate subversion of their power.

  • The arrests also suggest Beijing believes it will face no meaningful resistance from western countries. China enters 2021 as the only major economy that experienced significant growth in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Details: On Wednesday morning, a thousand Hong Kong police fanned out around the city, swarming 72 locations and eventually rounding up at least 53 pro-democracy activists and politicians, police said.

  • Most of those arrested, including former political candidates Tiffany Yuen, Gwyneth Ho, Alvin Yeung, Fergus Leung and Ventus Lau, had participated in unofficial primaries held in advance of the legislative elections originally slated for fall 2020 but canceled by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who cited the coronavirus pandemic as a pretext.

Just about everyone I’ve ever interviewed or photographed while covering the 2014 protests — at the start of my career — and the 2019 protests has been arrested, is in jail, or in exile. The entire cast of characters of the story of democracy in Hong Kong gone in one fell swoop.

— Laurel Chor (@laurelchor) January 6, 2021
  • Among the detained is John Clancy, an American lawyer who serves as the Hong Kong-based chairman of the Asian Human Rights Commission, and the first known foreign citizen without a Hong Kong passport to be arrested in Hong Kong under the auspices of the national security law.
  • Police also searched the premises of three Hong Kong news outlets and demanded they turn over information.

What they're saying: "The operation today targets the active elements who are suspected to be involved in the crime of overthrowing, or interfering (and) seriously destroy the Hong Kong government's legal execution of duties," said Hong Kong security minister John Lee in a press conference.

What's next: The national security law prescribes harsh punishments for offenders, including prison terms of up to 10 years or life in prison for those deemed the worst offenders.

  • The law also allows defendants to be transported to mainland China and tried in its courts, which are fully under the political control of the Chinese Communist Party.

So far, China has subjugated Hong Kong with near impunity. Condemnations of the arrests poured in on Wednesday, as the European Union, Germany, and U.S. leaders called on China to respect rights in Hong Kong.

  • But while western leaders have frequently criticized China's actions in Hong Kong over the past year, few have taken substantive action.
  • The U.S. has levied sanctions on some top Hong Kong and Chinese government officials involved in the political crackdown and downgraded the city's special economic status. Britain, the city's former colonizer, has opened its borders to Hong Kong residents who wish to resettle there.
  • But there have been no sweeping sanctions, China has faced no lasting diplomatic repercussions and has not been sidelined in any international organizations.
  • Last week, the EU even agreed to an investment deal with China, in a move widely seen as a major geopolitical win for Beijing just weeks before the Biden administration takes up the mantle of U.S. leadership.

What to watch: The home of protest leader Joshua Wong, who is currently serving time in prison for organizing an "illegal assembly" last year, was also raided — suggesting that the prominent activist may soon face further charges.

The bottom line: With these arrests, Beijing demonstrated that what the national security law prohibits is democracy itself.

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