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Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong in jail in December 2020
Image: Anthony Wallace/AFP

Hong Kong mass arrests: A further erosion of freedoms?

Alan MacKenzie
January 28, 2021

A pro-Beijing lawmaker tells DW’s Sarah Kelly that freedoms have been tightened in Hong Kong under the national security law, but the world is "overreacting" to the recent mass arrest of pro-democracy activists.


Michael Tien on Conflict Zone

"There has been a tightening of freedom to express views, particularly when it comes to Hong Kong gaining some kind of a greater control over its own destiny," a pro-Beijing lawmaker for the special administrative region has said.

"If anybody comes up with any kind of claim that goes against the Basic Law, yes, the freedom to express such views is much less today than before because of the national security bill," Hong Konger politician Michael Tien told DW's Conflict Zone.

Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, Ivan Lam: Activists' methods akin to 'treason'

Worries over creeping authoritarianism have only grown since Beijing imposed its vague national security law in June 2020 after months of mass protest. Prominent young activists including Wong, Chow and Lam have since been jailed and others have fled abroad to avoid being targeted under the new law.

Tien did not wish to comment on particular activists but said asking foreign governments to implement sanctions against one’s own country — as Wong has done against China — was "unthinkable" and would be seen elsewhere as "treason."

In early January, the mass arrest of dozens of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong provoked international condemnation and was seen as further evidence of Beijing tightening its control over the semi-autonomous territory.

UN: Opposition figures detained for 'exercising legitimate rights'

But when asked by DW’s Sarah Kelly if Hong Kong was witnessing a dismantling of its freedoms and its opposition, Tien disagreed and said everyone had to "cool down" over the arrests, suggesting investigations had to run their course. "What remains to be seen — what is important — [is] what specific charge do they end up coming through? And do they go according to every word in the national security law?"

Opposition figures in Hong Kong said the roundup was linked to their participation in a primary ballot in July 2020, in which over 600,000 people voted, to select pro-democracy candidates ahead of elections.

The UN’s human rights office denounced the arrests of activists, saying they indicated that "as had been feared, the offense of subversion under the National Security Law is indeed being used to detain individuals for exercising legitimate rights to participate in political and public life."

Hongkonger media mogual and democratic activist Jimmy Lai in police custody in December 2020
Democracy activist and media mogul Jimmy Lai was also detained in 2020 under the national security lawImage: Tyrone SiU/REUTERS

'The whole world is overreacting' to arrests

Was Tien disturbed that voting can get a person arrested in Hong Kong? Describing the background to the arrests, Tien said he didn’t believe the primary itself was unlawful, but reaction to the arrests had been overblown.

"And I'm supposed to be the more liberal of the pro-Beijing camp membership. The whole world is overreacting. They don't even know the details of these arrests or what it's all about ... Most likely a lot of them will never be charged. The key is, at the end, who will be charged and on what basis."

Tien sought to offer a constitutional distinction between holding a primary and pro-democracy activists soliciting foreign governments' help with ensuring democratic norms in Hong Kong. "One of the key suspicions is foreign government funding to fund the primary. Now, if they can prove that, then it's a whole new different matter," he went on to say.

Activist seeks to get German backing on Hong Kong

Banned lawmakers 'have due process'

In November, four opposition lawmakers were barred from the Legislative Council by the executive, which the Hong Kong Bar Association said violated "the basic principles of fairness and due process inherent in the Rule of Law."

"We do have due process," Tien told Kelly. "And if they lose, they can go to the appeal court. And if they lose [again], they can go to the court of final appeal. Yes, they haven't done that. And I think they should."

Tien said he was "not totally behind government disqualifying these people on all the grounds and specific allegations that they make" and was waiting to see them defend themselves against the government’s allegations in court. 

"They should put the government to test about this kind of disqualification," he said. "[The] Hong Kong government may not win all the time."

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