The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I was arrested in Hong Kong. It’s part of China’s larger plan.

Martin Lee as he leaves the Central District police station in Hong Kong on April 18. (Isaac Lawrence/Afp Via Getty Images)

Martin C. M. Lee is a barrister and founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party.

When seven police officers came to my door to arrest me on Saturday, I had just finished my morning walk around Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak. Despite government-mandated covid-19 social distancing rules, the police were armed with a search warrant. They took as evidence my cellphone and the T-shirt I wore to a demonstration last August that drew 1.7 million people — about a quarter of the population. We were protesting an extradition bill that would, if passed, have allowed for trial in China where there is no due process.

Also arrested Saturday were 14 other veteran democracy advocates, including academics, trade union leaders, an independent publisher, lawyers and former legislators. We are accused of violating a draconian law by participating in unauthorized, though peaceful, demonstrations. Already, news publisher Jimmy Lai, I and two others branded the “Gang of Four” have been accused of having committed 14 offenses on the mainland — and had the extradition bill been passed, we could have faced trial already in China instead of Hong Kong.

Our arrests are part of a larger plan.

In 1984, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping promised the world that the policy of “one country, two systems” would be applied to Hong Kong for 50 years, with Hong Kong people governing ourselves with a “high degree of autonomy.” Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime has completely changed this agreement by declaring in 2014 that Communist officials can exercise “comprehensive jurisdiction” in Hong Kong.

Repression by Beijing has drawn millions of Hong Kong people into the streets and to vote for pro-democracy candidates in last November’s district council election. Now, Beijing has appointed hard-liner Luo Huining to run its local arm, the China Liaison Office. He used a video address to demand that Hong Kong implement “national security” legislation “as soon as possible.”

Earlier efforts to pass this legislation, known as Article 23, led to massive protests in 2003, before the bill was withdrawn. The bill would outlaw “sedition, subversion and the theft of state secrets.” These vague standards are designed to protect the Chinese Communist Party and undermine core freedoms of Hong Kong, such as freedoms of religion, assembly and the press — including the reporting of pandemics that embarrass Beijing.

The novel coronavirus pandemic is Exhibit A for how damaging the subversion law would be to Hong Kong — and to the rest of the world. Hong Kong’s unfettered media was vital in alerting the world to the coverup by mainland officials and to the stories of front-line health workers such as Li Wenliang, a doctor who was reprimanded for warning about the outbreak. Indeed, Hong Kong was the only place in China that could publicly mourn Li’s death from the virus. Hong Kong media also played a key role in disclosing earlier China-based health crises such as SARS.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Hong Kong operates as an oasis of freedom because our people have long fought off China’s efforts to import communist concepts such as “subversion,” which in China is frequently used to send peace-loving political critics to jail. Under such a law, Hong Kong reporters who uncover evidence of the next outbreak could be prosecuted for “unauthorized disclosure of protected information.” Faced with such a risk, many may decide simply not to report at all.

In March, Chinese officials announced the expulsion of journalists working for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and The Post. With international media ejected from China, Hong Kong is a final bastion for reporting news the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t want the outside world to learn. But under the Article 23 national security legislation, international publications operating or just distributing in Hong Kong could face prosecution for sedition.

Sign up for the Press Freedom Partnership newsletter for curated view of the latest issues affecting press freedom worldwide

Article 22 of our constitution, the Basic Law, states, “No department of the Central People’s Government … may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own in accordance with this Law.” Chinese leaders now claim the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office and the Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong are not subject to Article 22, and therefore can interfere in Hong Kong’s affairs without breaching the Basic Law. This absurd argument shows how determined Xi has become to choke off freedoms in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong people now face two plagues from China: the coronavirus and attacks on our most basic human rights. We can all hope a vaccine is soon developed for the coronavirus. But once Hong Kong’s human rights and rule of law are rolled back, the fatal virus of authoritarian rule will be here to stay.

Read more:

The Post’s View: The Xi regime is taking aim at democracy in Hong Kong, using covid-19 as a cover

Joshua Wong and Amon Yiu: China is sinking its claws deeper into a bastion of freedom

Martin Lee: This may be China’s worst assault yet on the rule of law in Hong Kong

Angela Gui: Why China’s cruel imprisonment of my father should terrify us all

The Post’s View: How China’s authoritarian system made the pandemic worse

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

New covid variant: The XBB.1.5 variant is a highly transmissible descendant of omicron that is now estimated to cause about half of new infections in the country. We answered some frequently asked questions about the bivalent booster shots.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people. Nearly nine out of 10 covid deaths are people over the age 65.

For the latest news, sign up for our free newsletter.