Suppressing Hong Kong’s democracy movement is a priority for China, even in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, a top pro-democracy leader said on Sunday, a day after police arrested him and 14 others in a surprise crackdown.
The United States and others criticized the arrest of the 15 on charges of organizing and participating in anti-government protests last year, the biggest crackdown on the pro-democracy movement since the outbreak of the protests almost a year ago.
“This is all happening while we are in midst of a pandemic,” pro-democracy activist Avery Ng told Reuters by telephone.
“The world is dealing with this virus, but this signals that Beijing still sees a political crackdown in Hong Kong is a top priority.”
Those arrested included Democratic Party founder and barrister Martin Lee, 81, millionaire publishing tycoon Jimmy Lai, 71, and former lawmaker and barrister Margaret Ng, 72.
Police said those arrested were charged with organizing and participating in unlawful assemblies on Aug. 18 and Oct. 1 and 20 last year. Major and often violent demonstrations broke out across the former British colony on those days.
They were due to appear in court on May 18. Police said more arrests were possible. Avery Ng and some of the others arrested were released on bail late on Saturday.
The arrests prompted criticism from the United States and Britain, which both called for Hong Kong’s rule of law to be maintained.
“The United States condemns the arrest of pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong,” U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.
“Beijing and its representatives in Hong Kong continue to take actions inconsistent with commitments made under the Sino-British Joint Declaration that include transparency, the rule of law, and guarantees that Hong Kong will continue to ‘enjoy a high degree of autonomy’,” he said.
Hong Kong returned to Beijing in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” formula that guarantees it broad freedoms not seen in mainland China, and a high degree of autonomy.
China rejected the U.S. criticism.
“It serves as another evidence of their collusion with the local troublemakers, which deserves condemnation by the entire international community,” a spokesman for Office of the Commissioner of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong said a statement.