Hong Kong authorities on Friday charged pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong with organizing an illegal protest as they tighten a clampdown on unrest that has plunged the Asian financial hub into its biggest political crisis in more than two decades.
Wong, who led pro-democracy demonstrations five years ago that foreshadowed the latest turbulence, is the most prominent activist to be arrested since protests escalated in mid-June over fears China is exerting greater control over the city.
Police arrested several other activists and blocked plans for a mass demonstration on Saturday, in a show of force a day before the fifth anniversary of China's decision to rule out universal suffrage in the former British colony.
My arrest shows the government answers our request for a dialogue with batons, tear gas, rubber bullets and mass arrest. Our freedom of assembly and other fundamental rights are eroded.
The bespectacled Wong, who was 17 when he became the face of the student-led Umbrella Movement, as the 2014 pro-democracy protests were called, has not been a prominent figure in the latest protests, which have no identifiable leaders.
He was released from jail in June after serving a five-week term for contempt of court.
Wong and fellow activist Agnes Chow were charged with unlawfully organizing a public meeting outside police headquarters on June 21. They were released on bail and the case was adjourned until Nov. 8.
"Two months ago I served all of my jail sentence and left prison. Unfortunately, under the chilling effects generated by Beijing and Hong Kong governments, we are strongly aware how they arrest activists no matter whether they behave progressively or moderately," he told reporters.
"All we ask for is just to urge Beijing and Hong Kong governments to withdraw the bill, stop police brutality and respond to our calls for a free election."
Thousands of demonstrators blockaded police headquarters on June 21. They were protesting against a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts.
More than three months of unrest have evolved into calls for greater democracy under the one-country, two-systems formula, by which Hong Kong has been ruled since 1997, guaranteeing freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland.
Protesters are riled by perceived interference by China that undermines that formula.
China denies the accusation. It has denounced the protests and warned of the damage to Hong Kong's economy.
It has also accused foreign powers, particularly the United States and Britain, of fomenting the demonstrations, and warned against foreign interference.
'Attempt to scapegoat individuals'
Andy Chan, a founder of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party that was banned last September, was arrested at Hong Kong airport on Thursday on suspicion of participating in riots and attacking police, police said.
Wong's pro-democracy group, Demosisto, said the arrests were an attempt to scapegoat individuals in a movement that has built momentum without public figureheads.
"The arrests were apparently a political operation," Demosisto said on its Facebook page. "It will only make the government misjudge the public, leading to a deadly situation that is more difficult to resolve."
The Civil Human Rights Front, the organizer of previous protests, cancelled a mass demonstration planned for Saturday after the police refused permission.
Reuters exclusively reported on Friday that Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam previously requested Beijing's approval for a plan to ease tension, evidence of the extent to which China is controlling the Hong Kong government's response to the unrest.
Nearly 900 people have been arrested since the demonstrations began with frequent clashes between protesters and police, who have at times fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds.
With protesters and authorities locked in an impasse, as Hong Kong faces its first recession in a decade, speculation has grown the city government may impose emergency law, giving it extra powers over detentions, censorship and curfews.
Hong Kong's July retail sales sank the most since February 2016, government data showed on Friday.
The government would consider using "all laws" to prevent violence, Hong Kong leader Lam, who has become a lightning rod for protesters' anger, said this week.
Hong Kong was a long way from having to make use of emergency powers, a senior official of China's parliament told Reuters on Friday.
China brought fresh troops into Hong Kong on Thursday in what it said was a routine rotation of its garrison.
China rejects plan to appease protesters
Earlier this summer, Lam submitted a report to Beijing that assessed protesters' five key demands and found that withdrawing a contentious extradition bill could help defuse the mounting political crisis in the territory.
The Chinese central government rejected Lam's proposal to withdraw the extradition bill and ordered her not to yield to any of the protesters' other demands at that time, three individuals with direct knowledge of the matter told Reuters.
China's role in directing how Hong Kong handles the protests has been widely assumed, supported by stern statements in state media about the country's sovereignty and protesters' "radical" goals.
Beijing's rebuff of Lam's proposal for how to resolve the crisis, detailed for the first time by Reuters, represents concrete evidence of the extent to which China is controlling the Hong Kong government's response to the unrest.
The Chinese central government has condemned the protests and accused foreign powers of fuelling unrest. The Foreign Ministry has repeatedly warned other nations against interfering in Hong Kong, reiterating that the situation there is an "internal affair."
Lam's report on the tumult was made before an Aug. 7 meeting in Shenzhen about the Hong Kong crisis, led by senior Chinese officials. The report examined the feasibility of the protesters' five demands, and analyzed how conceding to some of them might quieten things down, the individuals with direct knowledge said.
In addition to the withdrawal of the extradition bill, the other demands analyzed in the report were:
- An independent inquiry into the protests.
- Fully democratic elections.
- Dropping of the term "riot" in describing protests.
- Dropping charges against those arrested so far.
The withdrawal of the bill and an independent inquiry were seen to be the most feasible politically, according to a senior government official in the Hong Kong administration, who spoke on condition of anonymity. He said the move was envisioned as helping pacify some of the more moderate protesters who have been angered by Lam's silence.
The extradition bill is one of the key issues that has helped drive the protests, which have drawn millions of people into the streets of Hong Kong. Lam has said the bill is "dead," but has refused to say explicitly that it has been "withdrawn."
Beijing told Lam not to withdraw the bill, or to launch an inquiry into the tumult, including allegations of excessive police force, according to the senior government official.
Another of the three individuals, who has close ties with senior officials in Hong Kong and also declined to be identified, confirmed the Hong Kong government had submitted the report.
"They said no" to all five demands, said the source. "The situation is far more complicated than most people realize."
The third individual, a senior Chinese official, said the Hong Kong government had submitted the report to the Central Co-ordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, a high-level group led by Politburo standing committee member Han Zheng, and President Xi Jinping was aware of it.
The official confirmed Beijing had rejected giving in to any of the protesters' demands and wanted Lam's administration to take more initiative.
In a statement responding to Reuters, Lam's office said her government had made efforts to address protesters' concerns, but did not comment directly on whether it had made such a proposal to Beijing, or received instructions.
Written questions to China's Foreign Ministry were referred to the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO), a high-level bureau under China's State Council. HKMAO did not respond to a faxed request for comment.
Reuters has not seen the report. The news agency also was unable to establish the precise timing of the rejection.