“Thus we left Hong Kong to her fate and the hope that Martin Lee, the leader of the Democrats, would not be arrested,” wrote the Prince of Wales in his private journal after the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. I doubt whether he or anyone else thought that day would come quite so soon.
The decision to arrest one of Hong Kong’s most senior barristers and the “grandfather” of the city’s democracy movement, 81-year-old Lee, a Catholic, along with 14 other prominent pro-democracy politicians and activists including fellow Catholics Jimmy Lai, owner of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, and Albert Ho, a lawyer and former chairman of the Democratic Party, strikes at the very heart of whatever remains of Hong Kong’s liberties, the rule of law and autonomy — presumably hoping to exploit the fact that the world’s minds are concentrated on the coronavirus pandemic.
It is also, as Britain’s former foreign secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind put it, an attack “on the international rules-based order itself” because it marks a betrayal of the promises made in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution and the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international legal treaty lodged at the United Nations and valid until 2047.
It is not, of course, entirely out of the blue. Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy have been under ever-increasing pressure in the past six years as Beijing has tightened the screws. During that time we have seen the disappearance of anti-regime booksellers, the disqualification of pro-democracy legislators, pressure on academic and press freedom, a law criminalizing perceived insults to the national anthem, legislation applying Chinese law on Hong Kong soil at the high-speed rail terminus — leading to the arrest and imprisonment on the mainland of British consulate official Simon Cheng — the expulsion of a growing list of foreign activists and journalists including myself, and the arrest and imprisonment of peaceful protesters under the arcane Public Order Ordinance, which gives the police excessive powers to proscribe protests.
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