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Under cover of pandemic, China arrests protest leaders

Under cover of pandemic, China arrests protest leaders

With much of the world focused on battling the coronavirus pandemic, Hong Kong police over the weekend arrested 15 of the city’s highest-profile political, legal and media opposition figures linked to the 2019 pro-democracy protests.

The surprise crackdown included 81-year-old lawyer Martin Lee, dubbed the “father” of Hong Kong democracy; media tycoon and long-time critic of China’s Communist party Jimmy Lai; and leading social activist and former legislator Lee Cheuk-yan.

Police allege the 15 coordinated and joined three unapproved protests: the first on August 18 in which organizers estimated 1.7 million attended, the second on the October 1 anniversary of the founding of modern-day China and the third on October 20.

A Hong Kong government spokesperson said their cases would be handled in a “fair, just and impartial manner.” Critics are accusing authorities of intimidation.

“The mass arrest is a calculated move,” said the Hong Kong Progressive Lawyers Group in a statement Monday, adding the arrests are “a political spectacle staged by the authorities to punish pro-democracy activists.” The group added that “hundreds of thousands of people” took part in mass demonstrations but were not arrested.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the arrests “inconsistent with commitments made under the Sino-British joint declaration that include transparency (and) the rule of law.”

Christopher Patten, Hong Kong’s last British colonial governor said, “This is what authoritarian governments do. Beijing is determined to throttle Hong Kong.”

On Monday, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned western political inference in Hong Kong’s affairs, with a spokesman adding that Hong Kong is a society ruled by rule of law.

During the Hong Kong protests of 2019, in which large swaths of civil society protested against the perception and fear of the erosion of civil liberties and freedoms at the hands of Beijing, CBS News Asia correspondent Ramy Inocencio interviewed Lee, Lai, Cheuk-yan and a series of opposition and establishment leaders.

In September, Lai told Inocencio “it’s a badge of honor” to be hated by Beijing and he does not fear his future. “Since long (ago) I stopped being scared because the Chinese Communists are very skillful in inducing fear to subdue you,” he said.

Lee, the founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, predicted the city’s end would come through Beijing’s heavy-handedness. “If Mr. Xi Jinping were to do it in the normal way — how a communist leader would handle problems of this kind — then it’s easy: suppression,” he said.

Hong Kong opposition leaders are now calling for people to return to the streets for a new, mass anti-government demonstration on July 1, the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British colonial rule to Beijing.

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