Hong Kong embraces its rights – for the rest of us

The April 18 arrest of 15 leading pro-democracy activists only attests to the weakness of China’s attempts to ignore basic rights like rule of law.

Pro-democracy advocate Martin Lee, second from right, leaves a police station in Hong Kong April 18.

For more than two decades, Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong has been a bellwether on how it would treat the rest of the world. On Saturday, that predictor became clearer after the arrest of 15 prominent campaigners for democracy.

Not surprisingly, many of the activists welcomed their arrests. The charges relate to their role in mass protests last year in defense of rule of law and against China’s attempts to curtail such rights in the former British colony.

“When the rule of law is in a crisis, shall we walk out or fight on?” said one activist, Margaret Ng, a longtime barrister and former legislator, after being released on bail.

Another of those arrested, Martin Lee, who is considered the “father” of the pro-democracy movement, was glad that he could now join the more than 7,000 young people already detained in connection with the demonstrations. At one point last year the demonstrations included about a third of Hong Kong’s 7 million people.

As she entered the police station Saturday, Ms. Ng was seen carrying a book that describes how China’s ruling Communist Party regards rule of law as mainly a tool to extend its power in other parts of the world, not as a universal right. The multiauthored book, “China’s National Security: Endangering Hong Kong’s Rule of Law?” also makes a case that the ability of the semiautonomous territory to retain its basic rights “matters ... to all of us” around the globe.

Most Hong Kongers prefer not to be called Chinese and embrace the self-governance and transparency of their current system, including an independent judiciary. Hong Kong still ranks high in a global index of rule of law. Since the protests have subsided with the threat of the coronavirus, pro-democracy leaders have been preparing to renew them in July. In addition, they hope to win many seats in September’s legislative election. Both of these developments may account for the timing of the arrests.

These leaders have also altered their tactics by asking people to support businesses that favor democracy and avoid those that don’t. Much of China’s pressure in Hong Kong is through the business community, which relies heavily on ties to the mainland.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping often reminds his country that rule of law really means “the law of governing by the Communist Party.” As he tries to export this model of governance to other countries along with his sweeping conception of China’s national security, he is starting to receive pushback in many places. But none more so than in Hong Kong. The arrests on April 18 have rung a bell in this bellwether territory. It is a sound heard around the world.

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