Defiant Hong Kong activists vow to resist China crackdown

Hong Kong (AFP) –


Hong Kong's democracy camp will continue to fight communist China's crackdown on political freedoms, activists vowed Friday after a devastating month of election disqualifications, arrests for social media posts and protest figures fleeing overseas.

Democracy advocates have come under sustained attack since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong last month -- a move China's leaders described as a "sword" hanging over the head of its critics.

The ensuing weeks have radically transformed a city used to speaking its mind and supposedly guaranteed certain freedoms and autonomy in a "One Country, Two Systems" deal agreed ahead of its 1997 handover from Britain.

In some of the most significant developments since the law was enacted, a dozen democracy activists on Thursday were barred from legislative elections due to be held in September.

"Our resistance will continue on and we hope the world can stand with us in the upcoming uphill battle," Joshua Wong, one of the city's most recognisable democracy figures, told reporters Friday.

Wong was one of those disqualified alongside other young firebrand activists and some older, more moderate democracy campaigners.

"Beyond any doubt (this) is the most scandalous election fraud era in Hong Kong history," said the 23-year-old, dressed in a T-shirt that said "They can't kill us all".

Hong Kong is not a democracy -- its leader is chosen by pro-Beijing committees.

But half of its legislature's 70 seats are directly elected, offering the city's 7.5 million residents a rare chance to have their voices heard at the ballot box.

- Polls suspended? -

Planning to capitalise on last year's huge and often violent anti-Beijing protests, democracy activists had been hoping to win their first-ever majority in September.

But authorities have begun scrubbing ballot lists of candidates deemed to hold unacceptable political views.

There are doubts over whether the election will even go ahead.

Multiple local media outlets have reported that Hong Kong's government plans to postpone the vote, citing a recent surge in coronavirus cases.

"That would be the complete collapse of our constitutional system," a coalition of democracy parties warned in a statement as they called on authorities to ensure elections go ahead with social-distancing measures in place.

Around half of Hong Kong's 3,100 COVID-19 cases have been detected in the past month and authorities fear hospitals are on the verge of being overwhelmed.

According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, at least 68 elections worldwide have been postponed because of the virus, while 49 went ahead.

In their statement, the pro-democracy coalition accused their opponents of using the pandemic to avoid a drubbing at the polls.

- A law to end unrest -

Hong Kong is going through its most politically turbulent period since its return to Chinese rule, and last year seven straight months of pro-democracy protests swept the city.

The pandemic and mass arrests have helped throttle the movement, but anger towards Beijing still seethes.

In response, China imposed its security law on 30 June, bypassing the legislature and keeping the contents of the law secret until it was enacted.

Beijing said the law would restore stability and not impact political freedoms.

It targets four types of crime: subversion, secession, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces -- with up to life in prison.

But the broadly worded law instantly outlawed certain political views such as promoting independence or greater autonomy for Hong Kong.

One provision bans "inciting hatred" towards the government.

Critics, including many Western nations, say it has demolished the "One Country, Two Systems" model.

Since it came into force, some political parties have disbanded while at least three prominent Beijing critics have fled overseas.

Libraries and schools have pulled books deemed to be in breach of the new law.

At least 15 arrests have been made so far.

On Wednesday four students were arrested under the new law for "inciting secession" through posts on social media. Others have been arrested for possessing or shouting independence and other protest slogans.

A man who allegedly drove his motorbike into a group of police officers while flying an independence flag was the first to be charged under the law, with terrorism and secession offences.