Sunday, August 31, 2014

Beijing Gets Ugly in Hong Kong

The Wall Street Journal Asia - August 29, 2014

Agents raid a prominent supporter of local democracy.

The people of Hong Kong want China to honor the democratic promises it made when the city became a special administrative region in 1997, and this fight for freedom deserves more world attention—especially as Beijing’s counterattack is getting ugly.

Agents from Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) searched the homes of media tycoon Jimmy Lai, his employee Mark Simon and legislator Lee Cheuk-yan on Thursday. The search warrants covered records of Mr. Lai’s donations to Mr. Lee and other pro-democracy politicians. The raid is especially ominous because it suggests that Beijing is compromising the independence of Hong Kong law enforcement.

Donations to politicians aren’t regulated in Hong Kong, and Mr. Lai’s computers had already been hacked and the details of his gifts splashed across the city’s pro-Beijing media. Several pro-Beijing figures have publicly complained to the ICAC that the donations should be investigated. But the grounds for following these up are hard to imagine, and the timing is suspicious.

The leaked donation records show that Mr. Lai is the main source of funding for the pro-democracy camp. His publications are also critical of Beijing and drum up support for protests. He and Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen support the Occupy Central movement, which is pressuring Beijing to allow pro-democracy candidates to run for Chief Executive in 2017. So no surprise that he is government enemy No. 1.


It’s likely that the Occupy Central movement is the real reason for the raids. If the records also show Mr. Lai donated to the organizers and they later carry through their plans for a Gandhian civil disobedience protest in the business district, he could be arrested for conspiracy. He could also face civil lawsuits from businesses that suffer losses.

Mafia groups are also being used to apply pressure. Founder Tony Tsoi shut down the popular pro-democracy website House News in July after receiving threats. In July 2013 a car rammed the gates of Mr. Lai’s house and a knife and axe were left with a threatening note. In 2008 the police uncovered a plot to kill him and prodemocracy legislator Martin Lee.

Late last year Beijing successfully pressured British banks HSBC and Standard Chartered to withdraw advertising from Mr. Lai’s publications, along with many local businesses. This month a proBeijing newspaper published a mock obituary, claiming that Mr. Lai died of AIDS.

The emerging politicization of law enforcement is the most corrosive part of Beijing’s campaign of intimidation. For several years the police have harassed pro-democracy protesters by trying to corral them into narrow spaces, causing dangerous congestion. After the annual July 1 march that attracted about half a million people this year, the police blamed the crowding on organizers and arrested several for walking too slowly. The involvement by the heretofore respected ICAC is an especially dangerous turn.

Such arrests and Thursday’s searches risk undermining public respect for the law and the government in general. Ironically it was Jasper Tsang, one of Beijing’s staunchest loyalists in Hong Kong, who sounded the alarm last year. When leaders lose the public’s trust, he warned, even their good policies will be resented. Beijing’s steady erosion of the independent institutions left behind by the British will only increase the desire of Hong Kong’s people for greater democracy and autonomy.

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