Hong Kong’s leaderless protest movement put to the test with arrest of prominent activists

Hong Kong Protests
Pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow meet media outside a government office in Hong Kong in June. The two were arrested Friday for participating and encouraging others to participate in an unlawful assembly.
(Kin Cheung / Associated Press)
The protests that have convulsed this city for nearly three months have lacked any clear leadership in a bid to sustain momentum should any of its organizers be threatened with jail.
That will now be put to the test after authorities in Hong Kong detained several prominent democracy activists, including Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, in an escalation of hardline tactics aimed at quelling unrest viewed as an affront to Beijing’s authority.
The arrests come as tensions in the city are reaching a boiling point with more signs that the Hong Kong government, under the direction of China’s central leadership, will not cave to any of the protesters’ demands, including withdrawing an extradition bill that originally sparked the protests. Meanwhile, China continues to flaunt shows of strength by sending fresh soldiers into the territory earlier in the week and publicizing its paramilitary forces idling across the mainland border in Shenzhen.
Wong and Chow were high-profile leaders of the 2014 Umbrella protests, which were triggered by China’s decision to impose its will on the election of Hong Kong’s leaders. Their arrests come a day before the fifth anniversary of that decision, mirroring a common practice in China of rounding up activists before sensitive dates. Permission to hold a march Saturday to commemorate the anniversary was denied by authorities.
Wong, 22, had just finished serving a two-month jail term in June. He was pushed into a vehicle Friday morning walking to a subway station and taken to a police station, according to members of his political group, Demosisto.
Shortly after, Chow, 22, was arrested inside her home. The pair were charged with both participating in and inciting an unlawful assembly outside the police headquarters last month. They were released on bail by the afternoon.
“Hong Kongers will not take this lying down,” Chow said at a news conference after posting bail. “The government and police are using all the tools at their disposal to spread white terror and deter Hong Kongers from participating in protests. But Hong Kongers will not be intimidated.”
While Wong and Chow remain prominent, they do not play the same roles as organizers today as they did during the Umbrella movement five years ago. Protesters have instead been taking cues from online forums and social media, working more like a hive mind.
Authorities also arrested Andy Chan, founder of the now-banned Hong Kong National Party, who was seized at Hong Kong International Airport on Thursday night before boarding a flight to Tokyo. Chan, 29, was arrested on suspicion of rioting and assaulting a police officer.
District Councilor Rick Hui, who was arrested Friday afternoon and accused of obstructing a police officer. His arrest was followed by the detention of former University of Hong Kong Student Union president Althea Suen for storming Hong Kong’s legislative chambers July 1. Another legislator and democracy advocate, Cheng Chung-tai, who was taken on Friday, thought it was unclear what he was charged with.
The day of arrests comes after a day of attacks on other pro-democracy figures. On Thursday, protest organizer KP Cheng was assaulted by an armed gang during a media interview. Civil Human Rights Front leader Jimmy Sham was confronted by masked men with a knife and metal pole in a Kowloon restaurant in a scene of thug violence that’s become increasingly common in a city known for its relative safety, modernity and rule of law.
The Civil Human Rights Front is responsible for organizing numerous peaceful marches against the unpopular bill, which would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, drawing millions of Hong Kong residents to the streets.
The bill, backed by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has ignited the worst political turmoil seen in Hong Kong in decades, broadening into a social movement that is also demanding democracy and greater police oversight.
Since suspending the bill in June, Lam has been intransigent over the protesters’ chief demands, which include a withdrawal of the bill, an independent inquiry into police misconduct and universal suffrage.
Reuters reported Friday that Lam had proposed to China’s central government withdrawing the bill to defuse the political crisis, but Beijing rejected the idea. The report undermines the notion that Hong Kong maintains autonomy from China under its special one-country two-systems arrangement negotiated with Britain before the colony was relinquished in 1997.
While Saturday’s march is officially cancelled, thousands are still expected to turn up in defiance. How well the march is attended will indicate the effectiveness of the high-profile detentions in the last two days. So far over 900 Hong Kongers have been arrested about the protests, including several minors.
“A few years ago, such mass arrests may have been enough to deter protesters out of fear,” said Wilson Leung, a founding member of the Progressive Lawyers’ Group. “But now it seems that the protesters’ grievances are so deep-seated and strongly held that they will not be deterred. It is likely to simply inflame the situation and push more protesters out onto the streets tomorrow [Saturday].”