Under the cloak of COVID-19, China has turned Hong Kong from a city of protest to a city of prosecution

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Dawn raids, mass arrests and lives upended.

It’s become common in Hong Kong since China’s Government imposed a national security law on the city, but yesterday set a new record.

Police, backed by mainland Chinese National Security investigators, raided and rounded up around 50 political figures in the city.

They also raided the home of prominent activist Joshua Wong but they couldn’t take him away as authorities had already jailed him for illegally protesting.

Among those arrested and suspected of the new crime of “political subversion” was prominent academic Benny Tai, who proposed the Occupy pro-democracy protests of 2014 as well as former local politicians, such as Claudio Mo.

In fact, most of the candidates and organisers of last year’s pro-democracy primary were detained, including those who ran and failed to attract many votes.

Former law professor Benny Tai, centre, was a key figure in Hong Kong’s 2014 Occupy Central protests and was arrested by police in Hong Kong.(AP/Apple Daily)

Police also turned up to the offices of a media outlet that helped organise it and made them turn over materials.

Even an American lawyer who helped manage the vote was led away, his law firm raided.

The reason for all this?

China’s autocratic leader Xi Jinping is sending a clear and chilling message that Hong Kong’s opposition isn’t allowed to oppose anymore.

Now, any genuine dissent that actually challenges or troubles what Xi’s representatives are doing in Hong Kong must be stamped out.

That has included effectively making it a criminal offence to take part in anything other than token opposition, with a minimum sentence of three years and a maximum of life.

The courts that adjudicate national security cases can only have judges approved (indirectly) by Beijing.

And according to the law, if a case is exceptional — whatever that means — they can just take the suspect to the mainland and trial them in the Communist Party-controlled courts instead.

But unlike previous national security cases where suspects were accused of waving pro-independence flags or colluding with foreign forces, these latest raids dramatically raise the stakes.

Why these arrests are a big deal for Hong Kongers

Last year many of Hong Kong’s beleaguered pro-democracy figures bandied together to organise a new way of choosing candidates.

Flags promoting pro-democracy candidate Joshua Wong in Hong Kong
About 50 Hong Kong pro-democracy figures were arrested by police under a national security law, following their involvement in an unofficial primary election last year.(AP: Vincent Yu)

They wanted to be strategic about it and give their movement the best chance.

So they organised a US-style primary election to choose who would go on to contest the city’s real election for the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s mini-parliament.

It followed a pretty turbulent 2019 in Hong Kong, when protesters took to the streets in opposition to government efforts to break down the wall of separation promised between Hong Kong and the mainland’s very different legal systems.

Many saw a plan to allow some criminal suspects to be extradited to the mainland for trial as the end of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ that Beijing promised before the 1997 handover from the UK.

While authorities backed down on the extradition plan, they rebuffed calls for more police oversight or real democracy to choose the city’s leader.

The protests descended into violence that paralysed Asia’s premier financial hub. China’s Government was incensed, decrying the protestors as “rioters”, “terrorists” and urging a “silent majority” of quiet Hong Kongers to rise up against them.

But in the election, the ballot box revealed where the true sympathies of Hong Kongers lay.

Election result was a trigger for crackdown on opposition

Pro-democracy parties romped home with massive swings in low-level district elections at the end of 2019. Turnout was a record high.

Hong Kong democrats were set to ride that anger to the more important Legislative Council polls at the end of 2020.

They were even pondering winning a rare majority, which in Hong Kong’s rigged parliament would require dominating the popularly-elected seats and taking a few more seats from the other half of the chamber.

Those seats are chosen by “functional constituencies” — industry, trade and professional groups that reliably elect pro-government candidates.

Hong Kongers aren’t allowed to choose their executive government, but if pro-democrats could just win a majority, they could use it to veto budgets and disrupt the Hong Kong government’s agenda.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, 600,000 of Hong Kong’s 7 million people cast votes in the process.

It was a huge turnout for what was only a primary election and the pro-democrats were widely thought to be heading for big swings.

A woman with dark hair and wearing glasses and a face mask walks carrying a blue folder
Hong Kong’s Government postponed the election, citing COVID-19 concerns.(AP: Vincent Yu)

But then Hong Kong’s Government, with Beijing’s blessing, cancelled the election altogether, delaying it a year due to coronavirus — a move many pro-democrats suspect was partly aimed at stalling their momentum.

Later, some of the winning candidates were banned from running in the actual legislative council election, with China’s Government continually tightening the eligibility criteria, including most recently redefining how patriotic candidates must be.

Xi has moved to stifle opposition in Hong Kong

Wednesday’s raids are all about that primary election.

Hong Kong’s security secretary said police action on Wednesday was necessary and that those arrested were “a group of people who aimed to paralyse the city’s government”.

The security secretary stressed that Hong Kong’s Government would not tolerate “subversive” acts.

China’s secretive national security police have now deemed the act of coordinating candidates and organising a primary vote in a bid to win control, so as to block or stifle government legislation, political subversion.

Whether all 50 of those arrested end up being prosecuted or not, the shock and awe raids follow a clear and determined pattern from Xi.

As China’s paramount leader, he is believed to be the individual approving, if not driving, the campaign on the city’s opposition.

Through his government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office, Xi had already redrawn eligibility definitions to disqualify elected legislators and strike out future candidates.

A man wearing a suit and mask is escorted in chains by two uniformed police wearing black caps and masks
Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai faces fraud and national security-related charges.(AP: Kin Cheung, file)

His national security operatives in Hong Kong have arrested Jimmy Lai — the head of Hong Kong’s most popular and fiercely pro-protest media outlet, entangling him in multiple legal cases and parading him in shackles.

Now in a huge sweep, the city’s most active opposition figures are being investigated for trying to improve their electoral chances and actually do what opposition parties are supposed to do.

Under the cloak of COVID-19, China’s city of protest has become a city of prosecution.

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