Two veterans of Hong Kong's democracy struggle, Martin Lee (left) and Cardinal Joseph Zen, attend a candlelight vigil at Victoria Park in Hong Kong on June 4, 2019. (Photo supplied)
The arrest of the 15 most visible leaders of the democratic and peaceful opposition on April 18 marked another black day in the history of Hong Kong. It was a dramatic escalation of events in the former British colony.
The most well known among those arrested is 81-year-old lawyer Martin Lee, the popular "father of democracy" in Hong Kong. Lee, founder of the Democratic Party, participated in the drafting of the Hong Kong constitutional charter. I remember him addressing the people of Hong Kong from the balcony of parliament asking for democracy on the fateful night of the handover on July 1, 1997. He had never been prosecuted before, and on April 18 he said he was proud to share the fate of many brave young men arrested for standing up for democracy.
Also arrested was Lee Cheuk-yan, co-founder of the Labour Party and former chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. He is considered a hero in Hong Kong for bringing help to the protesting youth in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. He was arrested on similar charges on Feb. 28.
Last November Lee Cheuk-yan spoke at various venues in Milan about the Hong Kong people’s revolt. Originally, it was Albert Ho, also among the arrested, who was invited to Italy. But Ho was mysteriously assaulted just before the trip.
Among the others arrested were the courageous and meek Margaret Ng (she spoke after Martin Lee on the night of the handover), Jimmy Lai, founder of the opposition newspaper Apple Daily, Leung Kwok-hung, a well-known activist and parliamentarian known by all as “Long Hair,” and Cyd Ho.
I have known them all for many years. I especially can attest that Martin Lee and Lee Cheuk-yan are courageous, honest and peaceful. The charges of organizing and taking part in “illegal assemblies” during last summer’s protests are clearly being used as a pretext. The police gave permissions for demonstrations and revoked them in such an arbitrary way that anyone can be accused of anything.
I can’t stop thinking that it is like the police had arrested iconic figures such as Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Steve Biko and Father Lorenzo Milani. These non-violence champions were arrested and prosecuted for violating similar dispositions of the law. Father Milani affirmed that “the laws of men are to be observed when they are right — that is, when they are the strength of the weak — but when they are not right — that is, when they sanction the abuse of the power — we must fight for having them changed.”
As "history will tell who is wrong and who is right" (Francesco De Gregori), I believe that the day will come when the 15 people arrested will be recognized as the forerunners for democracy and freedom in Hong Kong and mainland China.
In last November's elections, people massively voted in favor of democracy. Now, while the world is busy trying to overcome the huge challenge of the coronavirus pandemic and needs China's collaboration, in Hong Kong there is another agenda: the decapitation of the democratic opposition.
The timing of last Saturday's action was devious and dishonest and, as parliamentarian Claudia Mo has said, marked a step into a “reign of terror.” It seems in fact that Hong Kong has become a police state judging by the disturbing words of police chief Tang Ping-keung, who said of Martin Lee: “He encouraged more youngsters to break the law. I think instead of feeling honored, he should feel shameful." I believe that never before has a Hong Kong chief of police spoken like a politician, muddying a citizen not yet condemned in ongoing legal proceedings.
In there anybody else who has to be arrested? Who will be next? Cardinal Joseph Zen? Will Carrie Lam go ahead with this wretched policy up to the point of arresting Cardinal Zen?
And why arrest old leaders such as Martin Lee? Do the authorities think that this will stop the demonstrations? The young demonstrators are autonomous from the old leaders, and therefore their determination to continue the fight for Hong Kong democracy will certainly not be halted. It seems to me that these arrests contained a degree of nasty political retaliation against leaders who adamantly refuse to kowtow to Beijing.
The arrested were released on bail. That they are not behind bars is a temporary respite for them, but also for us who care for them. They will have to appear in court on May 18. If convicted, they face up to five years in prison. We will continue following this event and will support them and Hong Kong people in solidarity.
Father Gianni Criveller of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions is dean of studies and a teacher at PIME International Missionary School of Theology in Milan, Italy. He taught in Greater China for 27 years and is a lecturer in mission theology and the history of Christianity in China at the Holy Spirit Seminary College of Philosophy and Theology in Hong Kong. He is also an honorary research fellow at the Centre for Catholic Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He has lectured in major universities in mainland China for several years.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.