Hong Kong — Police in Hong Kong arrested three well-known pro-democracy activists over the course of just 24 hours; the latest move to quash anti-government protests heading into their 13th consecutive week. The move came on the eve of a highly-anticipated but now officially banned pro-democracy march on Saturday. Two of the activists were later released on bail.
The detentions brought swift condemnation from critics, but showas a report by the Reuters news agency showed the extent to which China's central government appears to be firmly in control of the semi-autonomous region's administration.
Joshua Wong, 22, one of the leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy "Umbrella Revolution," was walking to a subway station Friday morning when he was "forcefully pushed into a private minivan on the street in broad daylight," according to activist group Demosisto's Twitter account.
Wong is secretary-general of the group, which advocates for Hong Kongers to gain the right to directly elect their leaders rather than have them appointed by Beijing, or universal suffrage.
Agnes Chow, also 22 and a founding member of Demosisto, was arrested shortly after Wong, Demosisto said. Both were sent to Hong Kong police headquarters and charged with inciting and participating in illegal rallies.
Demosisto said Chow and Wong were both released later on Friday on bail, with their cases being adjourned until November.
Speaking after his release, Wong vowed not to give up, telling gathered reporters: "we will continue our fight no matter how they arrest and prosecute us." Separately, in a tweet, Wong said his arrest showed that China was answering "our request for a dialogue with batons, tear gas, rubber bullets and mass arrest. Our freedom of assembly and other fundamental rights are eroded."
Andy Chan, 28, a founding member of Hong Kong's first political party to advocate for independence from China, was arrested at Hong Kong airport Thursday night on suspicion of rioting and assaulting a police officer. In September 2018, the government banned his pro-independence Hong Kong National Party in the interest of national security and to protect the territorial integrity of the People's Republic of China.
It was not immediately clear whether Chan was also released on bail.
The three successive detentions came a day before a planned mass rally and march on Saturday to mark the fifth anniversary of Beijing's historic rejection of universal suffrage for Hong Kong. That denial triggered Hong Kong's 79-day pro-democracy Umbrella Revolution five years ago.
Huge rally banned
Hong Kong police on Thursday announced they would not permit the Saturday rally, citing concerns over public order. Friday morning, a further appeal to hold events on August 31 was rejected by the police.
The event organizer, the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), accepted the decision and called off the demonstration, but said it would continue to apply for permits to hold rallies and marches.
"Our first principle is always to protect all participants and make sure that no one bears legal consequences because of participating in the protests that we organize," said CHRF co-leader Bonnie Leung. "We can see no way that we can keep this principle and also continue our march and protest. Therefore the Civil Human Rights Front has no option but to cancel the march tomorrow."
"I really do not want to see anyone get hurt," Leung added. "I really do not want to see clashes happen but (the government) decided to close that door and we see no olive branch at all so the Hong Kong people will have no choice but to continue our movement."
It was the first rejection for the Civil Human Rights Front by Hong Kong authorities. The group has organized Hong Kong's four previous mass rallies, which have drawn millions of Hong Kongers onto the streets for peaceful Sunday rallies. The group estimated that 1.7 million people attended its most recent march on August 18. The official police estimate put the turnout at 128,000 people.
Nathan Law, former chairman of Demosisto who is currently studying at Yale University, said pro-democracy activists were "very angry" by the last-minute ban on the protest, which he said would have "a chilling effect" on the movement.
"The arrest was also apparently a political operation. We appeal to the public to fear political violence and white terror and continue to fight for their rights on August 31," said Law. "Hong Kong people, let's go!"
Indeed, despite the ban for Saturday, people are expected to hit the streets. There were calls for a mass "religious gathering" in a Hong Kong playground. A loophole in Hong Kong law permits religious groups to gather without a permit. Those who gather are expected to sing church songs to identify themselves as a religious group.
More Chinese troops
The arrests also come just a day after fresh Chinese military troops entered the city under the cover of darkness. Chinese government mouthpiece The People's Daily called the predawn movements on Thursday a "normal, routine, annual rotation" of forces, but U.S. intelligence sources told CBS News' David Martin dismissed that as non-credible.
Officials told Martin there was no sign that the military unit already in Hong Kong had rotated out, and previous announcements of rotations included assurances that the overall number would not go up. The announcement on Thursday did not include that assurance.
Fears continue to rise with the new Chinese troops inside Hong Kong. Friday morning, a short video uploaded by the People's Daily to its Twitter-like Weibo page showed People's Armed Police conducting anti-riot exercises in the southern city of Shenzhen, near Hong Kong, as they have for a few weeks.
Local Hong Kong news company RTHK said it appeared to be the fourth such exercise since the paramilitary police started massing in the border city earlier this month.
Meanwhile, state-run English-language newspaper China Daily published an editorial on Friday warning that "the armed forces stationed in the SAR (semi-autonomous region) will have no reason to sit on their hands. The PLA (People's Liberation Army, the Chinese army) garrison in Hong Kong is not merely a symbol of Chinese sovereignty over the city. The troops there are duty-bound to maintain public order and protect the country if required to do so."
This weekend marks 13 weeks of anti-government, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. Initial anger over a now-suspended extradition bill that could have allowed Beijing to extradite Hong Kong citizens and foreigners into its opaque legal system has since exploded into calls for universal suffrage, greater democratic reform and the resignation of the city's embattled chief executive Carrie Lam.
Lam's proposal rejected?
Reuters said Friday that Lam made an appeal to Beijing earlier this summer, suggesting that a complete withdrawal of the contentious extradition bill could help assuage the protesters and calm the streets of the city.
Reuters cited three anonymous people "with direct knowledge of the matter" as saying "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."
The report, if confirmed, would be the first clear evidence demonstrating what was already assumed; that Beijing is driving the Hong Kong chief executive's response to the protests. That heavy-handed influence in what is meant to be a "semi-autonomous region" is exactly what the pro-democracy activists are demonstrating against.
With the hugely symbolic 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1 fast approaching, Beijing appears increasingly eager to silence the protesters' calls and quiet the streets, to show the world there is indisputably, one China.