The protests that have convulsed this city for nearly three months have lacked any clear leadership in a bid to sustain momentum should any of their organizers be threatened with jail.
That will now be put to the test after authorities in Hong Kong detained several prominent democracy activists, including Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, in an escalation of hard-line tactics aimed at quelling unrest viewed as an affront to Beijing’s authority.
The arrests come as tensions in the city are reaching a boiling point with more signs that the Hong Kong government, under the direction of China’s central leadership, will not cave to any of the protesters’ demands, including withdrawing an extradition bill that originally sparked the protests. Meanwhile, China continues to flaunt its strength, sending fresh soldiers into the territory earlier in the week and publicizing its paramilitary forces idling across the mainland border in Shenzhen.
Wong and Chow were high-profile leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, which were triggered by China’s decision to impose its will on the election of Hong Kong’s leaders. Their arrests come a day before the five-year anniversary of that decision, mirroring a common practice in China of rounding up activists before sensitive dates. Permission to hold a march Saturday to commemorate the anniversary was denied by authorities.
The arrests could be the first of many more, now that the Hong Kong government is under growing pressure to stem the chaos before Oct. 1, when China celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party taking power, said Steve Tsang, a political scientist at SOAS University of London.
“This is just the beginning,” Tsang said. “I would expect in the next three to four weeks, Hong Kong may invoke the Emergency Regulations Ordinance giving them fairly sweeping powers to arrest people. I’m not talking about dozens, but hundreds, maybe the low thousands.”
The Emergency Regulations Ordinance, which was introduced by Hong Kong’s British colonial rulers in the 1920s to quash anti-government riots, would amount to something akin to martial law. Invoking the ordinance would give the government power to detain front-line protesters much longer without having to release them on bail.
When asked by reporters earlier this week, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam did not dispute a report that she was considering the law. Invoking it would represent a last-ditch effort to rein in the demonstrations before Oct. 1 and hold back Chinese troops or paramilitary forces from entering Hong Kong.
It remains to be seen whether the government can slow the protests by targeting a vocal minority. Unlike the 2014 Umbrella protests, today’s anger is fueled by a wide cross-section of Hong Kong society — illustrated by Lam’s historically low approval rating and the record low number of residents who identify themselves as citizens of China rather than Hong Kong.
“By arresting them, their hope is it will have a deterrent effect,” Tsang said. “I think it will backfire.”
Wong, 22, had just finished serving a two-month jail term in June. He was walking to a subway station Friday morning when he was pushed into a vehicle and taken to a police station, according to members of his political group, Demosisto.
Shortly after, Chow, 22, was arrested inside her home. The pair were charged with both participating in and inciting an unlawful assembly outside the police headquarters last month. They were released on bail by the afternoon.
“Hong Kongers will not take this lying down,” Chow said at a news conference after posting bail. “The government and police are using all the tools at their disposal to spread white terror and deter Hong Kongers from participating in protests. But Hong Kongers will not be intimidated.”
Wong, who faces trial Nov. 8, told journalists after his release on bail that he had no intention of giving up.
“We still keep on our fight. We shall not surrender,” he said. “And I urge international communities to send a clear message to President Xi [Jinping]: Sending troops or using emergency ordinances is not the way out. We will continue our fight, no matter how they arrest and prosecute us.”
Though Wong and Chow remain prominent, they do not play the same roles as organizers today as they did during the Umbrella Movement five years ago. Protesters have instead been taking cues from online forums and social media, working more like a hive mind.
The Hong Kong government risks alienating moderates by arresting the likes of Wong and Chow, who have not advocated violence, said Lynette Ong, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
“By detaining the prominent young people, who are actually more moderate than the radicals who tend to use violence, they are not only getting the wrong people but will anger the population at large,” Ong said.
Authorities also arrested Andy Chan, founder of the now-banned Hong Kong National Party, who was seized at Hong Kong International Airport on Thursday night before boarding a flight to Tokyo. Chan, 29, was arrested on suspicion of rioting and assaulting a police officer.
District Councilor Rick Hui was arrested Friday afternoon and accused of obstructing a police officer. His arrest was followed by the detention of Althea Suen, former University of Hong Kong Student Union president, for her alleged role in storming Hong Kong’s legislative chambers July 1. Another legislator and democracy advocate, Cheng Chung-tai, was taken in Friday, though it was unclear what he was charged with.
The day of arrests comes after a day of attacks on other pro-democracy figures. On Thursday, protest organizer KP Chung was assaulted by an armed gang during a media interview. Civil Human Rights Front leader Jimmy Sham was confronted by masked men with a knife and metal pole in a Kowloon restaurant in a scene of thug violence that’s become increasingly common in a city known for its relative safety, modernity and rule of law.
The Civil Human Rights Front is responsible for organizing numerous peaceful marches against the unpopular bill, which would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, drawing millions of Hong Kong residents to the streets.
The bill, backed by Lam, has ignited the worst political turmoil seen in Hong Kong in decades, broadening into a social movement that is also demanding democracy and greater police oversight.
Since suspending the bill in June, Lam has been intransigent over the protesters’ chief demands, which include a withdrawal of the bill, an independent inquiry into police misconduct and universal suffrage.
Reuters reported Friday that Lam had proposed to China’s central government withdrawing the bill to defuse the political crisis, but Beijing rejected the idea. The report undermines the notion that Hong Kong maintains autonomy from China under its special “one country, two systems” arrangement negotiated with Britain before the colony was relinquished in 1997.
Though Saturday’s march is officially canceled, thousands are still expected to turn up in defiance. How well the march is attended will indicate the effectiveness of the high-profile detentions in the last two days. So far, over 900 Hong Kongers have been arrested in relation to the protests, including several minors.
“A few years ago, such mass arrests may have been enough to deter protesters out of fear,” said Wilson Leung, founding member of the Progressive Lawyers Group. “But now it seems that the protesters’ grievances are so deep-seated and strongly held that they will not be deterred. It is likely to simply inflame the situation and push more protesters out onto the streets tomorrow [Saturday].”
Special correspondent Ho Kilpatrick reported from Hong Kong and Times staff writer Pierson reported from Singapore. Times staff writer Robyn Dixon in Hong Kong contributed to this report.