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Hong Kong activists arrested on eve of pro-democracy movement anniversary

Demonstrations were planned to honor the 2014 Umbrella Movement but authorities did not grant a permit.

Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong, two pro-democracy Hong Kong protesters, walk toward a press conference after being arrested and released on bail.
Agnes Chow, left, and Joshua Wong are two Hong Kong pro-democracy activists arrested on August 30, 2019.
Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

In 2014, protesters took to the streets to challenge Beijing’s plans to limit democracy in Hong Kong. Now, five years later, activists who’d planned to mark the anniversary with another demonstration are being blocked and arrested by Hong Kong authorities.

It’s a sign of the escalating tensions in Hong Kong between protesters and the government over months-long demonstrations that began over a controversial extradition bill and have since blossomed into a larger fight for democracy and rule of law in the autonomous territory.

On Friday, police arrested two well-known activists — Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow — who are members of the pro-democracy group Demosisto and were leaders of the 2014 protest movement that came to be known as the Umbrella Revolution.

Hong Kong authorities accused Wong and Chow of participating in an unauthorized assembly and of inciting others to participate. A leader of a banned pro-independence political party, Andy Chan, also said he was arrested at the airport on Thursday, reportedly on allegations of inciting rioting and assaulting a police officer.

According to NPR, two Hong Kong politicians who participated in the protests were also arrested, as was Althea Suen, a former president of the University of Hong Kong’s student union, allegedly for her role in the July 1 storming of the Legislative Council building.

Both Chow and Wong were later released on bail. “Two months after I got released from prison, I’m arrested again,” Wong wrote on Twitter. “Even though it’s a heavy cross to bear, I expected that I would be arrested and prosecuted in this movement again.”

“We are furious about large-scale arrest on the day before 31 August,” Wong added. “It is completely ridiculous that the police target specific prominent figures of social movement in the past and framing them as the leaders of the anti-extradition bill protests.”

The Umbrella Revolution and today’s Hong Kong protests are closely linked

The 2014 Umbrella Revolution — where Wong and others rose to prominence — began as a challenge to Beijing over a change in how Hong Kong could select its leaders, most notably the Hong Kong chief executive.

Beijing had promised universal suffrage to Hong Kong by 2017, but in 2014 it came up with a new plan: Hongkongers could vote for the chief executive, but the candidates would be hand-picked by Beijing.

Many Hongkongers rejected this because, quite clearly, it wasn’t really a meaningful vote if China got to control the slate of candidates. Pro-democracy advocates were furious and took to the streets in what would become the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, which got its name from the umbrellas protesters used to guard themselves against tear gas.

The Hong Kong legislature ultimately rejected Beijing’s version of voting reform. So in 2017, for its chief executive elections, Hong Kong stuck with the electoral committee of about 1,200 members, most of whom are loyal to Beijing. That’s how the current chief executive, Carrie Lam, got her job.

In many ways, the Umbrella Revolution is the forerunner to Hong Kong’s current protests. These latest protests started over changes to an extradition law, which would have allowed for Hongkongers to face possible charges in mainland China. Many feared that Beijing would use the law to arbitrarily target people, especially those who challenged China’s leadership or political system.

The government has suspended — basically, put on pause — the extradition bill, but it hasn’t fully withdrawn it. Protesters want it totally scrapped, but the battle over this law has very much transformed into a fight for the future of Hong Kong’s democracy. And demonstrators are once again demanding universal, and legitimate, suffrage.

Which is why a rally Saturday marking the fifth anniversary of the start of the Umbrella Movement was so consequential to Hongkongers, and was likely to draw big crowds in what would be the 13th week of protests. Instead, the Hong Kong government and police appear to be trying to erase that commemoration and sideline the leaders of the old movement. An official with the Hong Kong police told reporters Friday that the arrests of the activists were “not correlated” with the 2014 anniversary, according to the Washington Post.

Either way, this all looks likely to backfire. Even though protesters don’t have a permit to demonstrate, many will likely still find a way to take to the streets and challenge the government. Millions have defied a police ban before.

And the arrests of the activists probably will do little to chill the current Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. As Wong himself pointed out, the Hong Kong protests over the past few months have been largely leaderless, fueled by grassroots organizing in online forums and chats. This makes them much more fluid and spontaneous, and maybe just a bit harder to handicap if no one person or handful of people are charge.

Wong’s arrest and the arrest of other activists is definitely a chilling sign for democracy in Hong Kong, and it shows that the government, even under pressure, is stepping up its efforts to squash the protests. But it almost certainly won’t stop the demonstrations from happening or quell the fury many protesters already feel toward the police and the government.