On April 18, 2020, 15 pro-democracy Hong Kong citizens were arrested for organizing and participating in “unlawful, unapproved assemblies” on several different occasions throughout the last three quarters of 2019. Among the detained were the barrister Margaret Ng, lawyer Albert Ho, labour rights activist Lee Cheuk-yan, former legislators Leung Kwok-hung and Au Nok-hin, and younger activists, including Figo Chan, the vice-convener of the Civil Human Rights Front. Apart from the allegedly unapproved assemblies, these pro-democracy activists organized a number of mass protests approved by police in 2019. Mass demonstrations have occurred since March 2019 and until now, there were no signs that protests are coming to an end.
The outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) has stymied the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong and has facilitated Beijing to push for these high-profile arrests last month. In response to the pandemic, Hong Kong citizens are forced to stay home, and public gatherings are limited due to new social-distancing laws. Arresting pro-democracy leaders amid the restrictions of the movements of Hong Kong citizens might potentially fuel more public distrust of authorities.
Pro-democracy lawmakers claim that these arrests are attempts to silence the social movement after Beijing demanded that Hong Kong enact national security legislation. Pro-democracy politician Claudia Mo denounced Beijing, arguing that mainland authorities were trying to terrorize the Hong Kong opposition ahead of the legislative council election and breaching freedom of expression.
Reacting to the news of the arrests, the International Bar Association argued Hong Kong authorities should not encroach on human rights and that the legal system must be free from abuse of power. Additionally, the Foreign Office of the UK criticized the arrests stating, “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.”
Beijing views these arrests as an effective counter to the pro-democracy movement. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sees the demonstrations as a vital national security threat. During the annual gathering of the CCP in 2019, Chinese Premier Xi Jinping said “This  is the time to end the chaos in Hong Kong.” China has stepped up its pressure to quash dissent from the city. China’s intervention is an attempt to stymie the U.S. and other Western powers’ efforts in continuing to support the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. Chinese leaders understand that dissent within Hong Kong has the ability to spiral into broader dissent in the country, threatening the regime’s survival.
On May 28, the National People’s Congress (NPC) of China approved a motion to amend the Basic Law of Hong Kong, the city’s constitution, by including national security legislation. The national security law aims to combat socio-political unrest in Hong Kong where Beijing will bypass the Hong Kong legislature and enforce the law by decree. The city’s pro-democracy lawmaker Dennis Kwok argues passing the national security law is the end of the “one country, two systems” policy and Hong Kong’s civil liberties and hopes of democracy. The earliest time the national security proposal can be enacted is the end of June. Once enacted, freedom of expression and the right to dissent will be stymied in the city, as individuals expressing anti-Beijing messages will be subject to arrest and imprisonment. The national security law would prohibit behaviors of separatism, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference in Hong Kong. In addition, a central national security agency would be established and operate in the semi-autonomous city, meaning that Hong Kong-based Chinese law enforcement agencies would be given the right to carry out operations, when needed, in the territory.
Despite Beijing’s disapproval, the right to peacefully protest is, as mentioned by the Foreign Office, a “fundamental way of life in Hong Kong,” so authorities should not take actions to inflame Hong Kong-Beijing tensions. Otherwise, an increasing level of public resentment against Beijing is plausible, and a second wave of mass demonstrations could occur. Beijing should rather push the Hong Kong government to rebuild public trust through a process of meaningful public dialogues. These include the discussion on how the Hong Kong government could strengthen their social policies to develop affordable accommodations for local citizens and how the independent judicial system could become more transparent and less vulnerable to political intervention. While safeguarding national security is crucial to Beijing, anti-China resentment in Hong Kong is not solely triggered by Xi’s political intervention in the semi-autonomous city. It is rather caused by a combination of economic, social, political, and legal dissatisfaction and conflicts.
A policy from Beijing making housing more affordable—such as publicly-subsidized housing—would be welcomed by Hong Kong residents as an olive branch from the government, an effort to solve long-term socioeconomic issues in the region. Property values in Hong Kong are much higher than in mainland Chinese cities. To avoid the higher prices, Hong Kong citizens often purchase properties outside Hong Kong’s jurisdiction, where prices are lower. Further, China currently limits Hong Kong residents to purchasing only one residence in mainland China. Allowing them to purchase two properties would make residents feel more financially secure in owning real estate assets.
To consolidate national security and avoid further national divide, Beijing should raise Hong Kong citizens’ sense of belonging and, thus, national identity. Breaching the principles of judiciary independence in Hong Kong would certainly increase anti-China sentiments both in Hong Kong and internationally. Respecting Hong Kong’s civil liberties and helping local citizens raise their socioeconomic wellbeing could be seen as a more peaceful alternative to realise national cohesion in the long-term.
Jason Hung is a researcher and writer who held research appointments at Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley and King’s College, London. Jason holds an MSc in Sociology at the London School of Economics and is an incoming PhD in Sociology candidate at the University of Cambridge.