Hong Kong''s pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai was arrested over the weekend and charged with illegal assembly. Photo: CNA

As the coronavirus contagion continues to wane in Hong Kong, political acrimony has crept back into the city following the detention of a dozen prominent opposition leaders and a media tycoon over the weekend.

Several former chairpersons of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, including Martin Lee, Albert Ho and Yeung Sum, former opposition lawmakers Lee Cheuk-yan and “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung, and Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai were among those charged with illegal assembly during the months-long anti-China extradition bill protests that convulsed the Asian financial center and frayed the city’s ties with mainland China.

They will stand trial at a magistrate’s court in mid-May.

The operation to apprehend some of the city’s leading anti-China firebrands and opposition leaders did not elude the glare of the media, with Lai’s Apple Daily live-streaming a van load of agents knocking at the media tycoon’s villa in Kowloon and yelling at guards to surrender Lai, only to find that Beijing’s mortal foe was not home. The officers later managed to bundle Lai into a police car and drive him off after he retuned home a few hours later.

Lai and his accomplices have been charged with organizing several unauthorized rallies, one of them a massive protest in the city aimed at raining on Beijing’s exuberant 70th anniversary National Day bash on October 1. The street scuffles and vandalism on that day plunged Hong Kong into anarchy and stole the limelight from the military parade in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai (right) is escorted by agents to a police station for questioning. He is now out on bail pending his trial next month.
Prominent opposition figures Jimmy Lai, Martin Lee, Albert Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan and Avery Ng were among those arrested. Photos: RTHK

On Monday, the front pages of newspapers in Hong Kong also illustrated the popular divide in the city, with pro-Beijing publications like the Hong Kong Commercial Daily and Ta Kung Pao hailing the police force’s swoops and arrests of the 15 democrats, saying they deserved to be held accountable.

By contrast, Lai’s Apple Daily did not mince words in its tirade against the Hong Kong government doing Beijing’s bidding, lamenting that Beijing’s pledge of respect for the city’s liberty and autonomy had become nothing but sleight of hand.

In a coordinated move, China’s Foreign Ministry swiftly dismissed the usual concerns of the United States and United Kingdom over the clampdown in the former British colony, and Hong Kong’s government moved in lockstep with Beijing, denouncing foreign intervention and rejecting allegations that the city displayed a diminished degree of autonomy.

Indeed, in a joint statement, Beijing and its local loyalists, the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office and Beijing’s liaison office in the city, deprecated the opposition’s unabashed filibustering at the legislature that had led to a backlog of government bills and funding proposals waiting to be passed.

At least 15 meetings have been convened in the past six months but the House Committee of the Legislative Council tasked with scrutinizing bills still failed to elected a chairman. But Beijing’s ire was again met with defiance during the latest House Committee meeting last week, which again ended in chaos without any breakthrough.

Fresh rows also erupted over the power and authority of the State Council’s Hong Kong affairs office, as well as Beijing’s liaison office in the city, when the opposition took issue with the roles of the two offices and their alleged meddling.

The outcome may be a taste of things to come as Hong Kong nears the midpoint of Beijing’s 50-year pledge of a “high degree of autonomy” and the preservation of the city’s own institutions that paved the way for the handover in 1997.

The two offices have hit back at accusations from the democratic bloc that they had contravened Article 22 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitutional document, which bans departments of the central authorities from interfering in the running of the city and issues within the scope of its autonomy.

A statement from the two offices stressed that they represent the central authorities in dealing with affairs related to Hong Kong and have every right to voice concerns and make clarifications on consequential issues, and that the two offices are not just departments or branches of the central authorities in any general sense and are thus not bound over by Article 22.

The Chinese flag and national emblem are seen outside Beijing’s liaison office in the former British colony. Photo: Xinhua
A protester spray paints a sign outside Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong on July 21, 2019, at the height of the city’s anti-China extradition protest. Photo: AFP Forum via NurPhoto/Vernon Yuen

In January and February, Beijing sacked the heads of the two offices and replaced them with more senior hardcore cadres.

Xia Baolong, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s close aide and a deputy chair of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, was appointed as director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, making him the top official overseeing the city from Beijing, while Luo Huining will execute directives from Beijing as its top envoy in the city and chief of the local liaison office.

The latest assertion made on the watch of Xia and Luo has marked a striking departure from the previous assumption that the two offices and their cadres must not overstep the limits specified by Article 22 and should not interfere in the city’s internal affairs, such as the operation of its legislature. The stance is so new that even the Hong Kong government needed some time to process it.

The city’s government, within the short span of a few hours on Sunday evening, revised several times a statement meant to concur with Beijing’s position on the rule of the two offices.

The statement first noted that Beijing’s liaison office in the city was set up in accordance with Article 22, yet versions revised later stressed that the office would not be subject to the article as it was directly set up by the central government in Hong Kong with its overarching authority over the city.

“The liaison office is one of the three organizations set up in Hong Kong by the Central Government, and is authorized to have special responsibility to handle issues relating to the city. It is entrusted with the authority and responsibility to represent the central authorities to express views and exercise supervisory power on major issues such as those concerning the relationship between the central authorities and the city, the implementation of the Basic Law, the proper operation of the city’s political system and the well-being of the community as a whole,” noted the final version.

A politics professor at Peking University who wished not to be named told Asia Times that quibbling over the wording and applicability of a specific article meant to prevent intervention from Beijing serves the aim of elevating the status of the two offices above that of ordinary departments of the central government. He said the two offices would have a freer hand to re-delineate the city’s autonomy and step in whenever an issue arises.

“If Beijing now says its two offices related to Hong Kong are not just ordinary departments and are not bounded over by the article, then Beijing can also set up new offices in the city and dispatch mainland officials at will and say they are also not bound over by the article or the entire Basic Law, so they can represent Beijing and butt in on local affairs as they see fit,” said the academic.

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