On Friday, Hong Kong authorities upped the ante in their quest to tamp down the mass protests that have persisted throughout the summer. A wave of arrests targeted democracy activists even while police banned a planned march set for Saturday.
Among those arrested were Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, who both gained fame for their roles as student leaders in 2014’s Umbrella Movement. Wong and Chow were arrested separately in the early morning of August 30, and charged with inciting and participating in “unauthorized assembly.” Wong, in a Twitter thread, specifically linked his arrest to a June 21 protest outside police headquarters in Wan Chai. Both have since been released on bail.
Also arrested was Andy Chan, leader of the Hong Kong National Party, which was banned for its pro-independence stance. According to Hong Kong Free Press, Chan was “arrested on suspicion of rioting and assaulting a police officer.” Chan had previously been arrested in early August in connection with a police raid that discovered “smoke bombs, materials to make molotov cocktails, and bows and arrows.”
To many pro-democracy advocates, the timing of the arrests on August 30 was no coincidence. August 31 marks the five-year anniversary of the day the Standing Committee of the Chinese National People’s Congress officially approved its draft plan for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. The plan would have allowed for direct election of Hong Kong’s chief executive, but all candidates for that post would need to pass muster with a pro-Beijing committee. As I wrote back in 2014, the nominating committee’s role “would make it effectively impossible for anyone from Hong Kong’s pan-democracy opposition parties to even serve as a candidate” in a chief executive election.
Outrage over the perceived restriction on democratic choice led directly to the Umbrella Movement protests of five years ago – and the legacy of 2014, as Jessie Lau elucidated for The Diplomat Magazine, lives on in the current protest movement. Thus the August 31 anniversary is a key date for this year’s protests as well. Writing on Twitter, Wong said that he and Chow were “furious about large-scale arrest [sic] on the day before 31 August.” Police, however, have denied that the timing of the arrests has anything to do with the anniversary.
Wong also expressed frustration that police were targeting leaders of the Umbrella Movement and holding them responsible for the current protests, which have been pointedly leaderless. “It is completely ridiculous that the police target specific prominent figures of social movement in the past and framing them as the leaders of the anti-extradition bill protests,” Wong wrote (all sic). “The 12-week long protests is prestiged as leaderless … We once again reiterate that Demosisto [the pro-democracy organization of which Wong and Chow are founding members] has never taken up any leading role during the movement.”
Given the organic nature of the current protests, the arrests will not stop the organization of further marches. They could, however, have a chilling effect by signaling the police will take even stronger action against demonstrators. In fact, the arrests are already having an impact. The Civil Human Rights Front, considered a moderate protest group, called off a planned march after losing its appeal over a police decision to deny permission for the protest.
“The first priority of the Civil Human Rights Front is to make sure that all of the participants who participate in our marches will be physically and legally safe,” Bonnie Leung, a leader of the CHRF, said, according to the Associated Press.
Leung pointed to the arrests of pro-democracy activists as a factor in the decision to cancel the march: “They arrested Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow this morning so there is a real danger we could face the same consequences as well.”
Since the demonstrations kicked off on June 9, Hong Kong police have arrested over 900 people on charges related to protest activities, including charges of rioting. The release of those already arrested, and the dropping of all rioting charges, are key demands of the protesters. The new wave of arrests sends a strong signal that the Hong Kong government is not going to meet those demands but is instead doubling down on its current approach.
That meshes with a recent Reuters scoop that the central government in Beijing has explicitly ordered the Hong Kong authorities not to give in to any of the protesters’ demands. The report, by James Pomfret and Greg Torode, cites anonymous sources “with direct knowledge” of a meeting where Beijing rejected Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s proposal for dealing with the protests. Lam was considering giving in to two of the protesters’ demands: formally withdrawing the controversial extradition bill that sparked the demonstrations in the first place and agreeing to an independent inquiry into how police handled their response to the protests. According to Reuters, “Beijing had rejected giving in to any of the protesters’ demands.”
That would explain why the Hong Kong government has seemed paralyzed in its response to the protests — unable to stop them but unwilling to make the necessary political compromises to address public anger behind the demonstrations. The wave of arrests on Friday, together with the police refusal to approve a planned protest for Saturday, signals an even more hardline stance as the Hong Kong government tries to bring the movement to an end.
Activists, however, predict the clampdown will have the opposite effect, and only galvanize more Hong Kongers to take to the streets. Leung of the CHRF pledged that the movement would not die down: “We will carry on. We will continue to apply for marches and Hong Kong people, I’m sure, will keep coming out to the streets.”