IN NEARLY 40 years of advocating for democracy in Hong Kong, Martin Lee had never been arrested. That was no doubt a result of his unyielding adherence to peaceful means of protest. It also reflected Hong Kong’s independent legal system and authorities understanding that persecuting this political icon would prompt a major backlash, both domestically and internationally.

It is thus a sign of these remarkable, pandemic-afflicted times, and of the determination of China’s Communist regime to exploit them, that on Saturday the now 81-year-old Mr. Lee was detained, along with some 14 other prominent Hong Kong opposition politicians, lawyers and activists. “I’m relieved and very proud to finally be listed as a defendant after seeing so many brilliant young people arrested and charged,” the undaunted campaigner said. “We’d be pursuing democracy together.”

That pluck will be needed in the face of what seems to be a major new effort by the government of Xi Jinping and its puppet administration in Hong Kong to crush the pro-democracy movement, using the novel coronavirus outbreak as a cover. The spread of the disease already put an end to months of mass popular demonstrations that authorities had been unable to quell, even with mass police repression and more than 7,000 arrests.

Rather than accept that respite, Mr. Xi has chosen to escalate. In January, he installed a hard-line ally, Luo Huining, as head of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong; last week Mr. Luo delivered an inflammatory speech calling for the revival and passage of a package of security laws prohibiting acts of sedition, subversion or independence from China. The legislation was introduced and then withdrawn in 2003 in the face of mass protests. Now, Mr. Xi appears determined to ram it through.

That won’t be easy, even if the coronavirus keeps protesters off the streets. Pro-democracy politicians, including from the Democratic Party founded by Mr. Lee, hold a considerable number of seats in the Hong Kong legislature and have a chance of gaining more in elections scheduled for September. Which may explain Saturday’s mass arrests: Those rounded up include one present and eight former legislators, along with the publisher of the pro-opposition Apple Daily newspaper, Jimmy Lai. If they are convicted, they could be banned from future elections. Meanwhile, China’s minions are hinting at action against more sitting legislators they accuse of “malicious filibustering.”

Preoccupation with the pandemic did not prevent international reaction to the crackdown: Both the Trump administration and Britain issued critical statements, as did a bipartisan group of U.S. senators. They pointed out that the Xi regime was blatantly disregarding the “one country, two systems” principle under which China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong while guaranteeing the preservation of the rule of law and political freedoms until at least 2046. Beijing swiftly rejected the criticism, but it will have a harder time avoiding the blowback that likely would come from Hong Kong’s foreign investors or its already aroused citizens — even if the latter must wait until the epidemic passes.

Read more: