Hong Kong protest leaders arrested in wake of election

Just hours after the newly chosen Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed to heal Hong Kong’s deep splits and 'unite our society', police are swooping down to lay charges against the leaders of the territory’s democracy protests of 2014.

9 top leaders of pro-democracy Occupy groups have been told they face arrest for 2014 protests

Benny Tai, left, and Kin-man Chan, founders of the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement, face arrest in a crackdown on organizers of pro-democracy protests in 2014. Chan said he was told to report to the police station to be arrested for violating public nuisance and incitement laws. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Just hours after the newly chosen Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed to heal Hong Kong's deep splits and "unite our society," police swooped down to lay charges against the leaders of the territory's democracy protests of 2014.

"They called me early this morning," said Kin-man Chan, a co-founder of Occupy Central and a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. "We never expected these kinds of charges."

He said police told him to report to their station, where he would be arrested for violating public nuisance and incitement laws.

Eight other top leaders of the pro-democracy Occupy groups — also called the Umbrella Movement — were informed by police that they face arrest for organizing 79 days of mass demonstrations and sit-ins in the heart of Hong Kong that took place two and half years ago.

The arrests are a provocative move in a territory where the protest movement is gaining momentum and resistance to perceived interference by the central Chinese government in Beijing is growing.

Last fall, Beijing stepped in to disqualify two protest leaders who were elected to Hong Kong's legislative council in a territory-wide vote.

People take selfies with Carrie Lam, chief executive-elect, on Monday, a day after she was elected leader of Hong Kong. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

'Beijing's favourite'

Lobbying and pressure by Chinese leaders is credited for the choice Sunday of Hong Kong's new leader, Carrie Lam, by the territory's election committee. The career civil servant and former top administrator is known as "Beijing's favourite," while her main opponent, Hong Kong's former finance secretary John Tsang, was more popular among citizens during the campaign.

The election committee has 1,200 delegates representing business, labour and social groups who are overwhelmingly loyal to the central Chinese government in Beijing. The fact that individual Hong Kong citizens do not get a vote has fuelled much of the resentment and mobilized thousands — especially young people — to demand it.

In her victory speech, Lam acknowledged deep rifts in the community.

"Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from quite a serious divisiveness and has accumulated a lot of frustration," Lam said. "My priority will be to heal the divide and to ease the frustration." 

Lam does not take office until July 1, but she is widely expected to continue many current policies.

People opposed to the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement carry caricatures of the group's leaders, including Kin-man Chan, in Hong Kong in 2014. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

"It is very ironic, of course," said Occupy Central's Chan. "When Carrie Lam says her first mission is to build bridges, now they are charging us. It's sending a message to the community that the hardline approach to Hong Kong affairs will continue." 

Chan said he believes the timing of the arrests was deliberately set for after Sunday's vote so that it would not threaten Lam's selection, though it risks igniting a whole new set of protests.

When Hong Kong was passed from British to Chinese control in 1997, Beijing agreed to allow the former colony to stay semi-autonomous for at least 50 years.

Under an approach called One Country, Two Systems, the territory would be guaranteed its own distinct legal, economic and political systems and far more democratic rights than other Chinese citizens have.

Some call for Hong Kong independence

But increasingly Beijing has been stepping in to impose its own rules on freedom of speech, political activism and human rights. Some have been so upset, they advocate self-determination for the territory of seven million, possibly even a referendum on independence from China.

It will be an uphill battle for Carrie Lam to regain trust and respect from the public. And whether she can say no to Beijing will be key.- Alvin Yeung, Civic Party leader, member of the legislative assembly

That has outraged Chinese leaders, who have clamped down hard on any hint of separatism in other regions like Tibet. Earlier this month, Premier Li Keqiang told the National People's Congress, China's parliament, that Beijing is committed to ensuring stability in Hong Kong.

"The notion of Hong Kong independence will lead nowhere," he warned.

Lam has made it clear that even universal suffrage is not her priority.

She says she wants to tackle "easier things" like housing problems, education and health care first. But opposition groups say the basics of government will break down if people don't believe they have a voice.

"Without a fair, transparent, genuine democracy, a lot of issues cannot be dealt with in Hong Kong," said Alvin Yeung, the leader of the Civic Party and a member of the legislative assembly. Yeung graduated from high school in Canada and has a political science degree from the University of Western Ontario. He is not one of the opposition leaders arrested Monday for inciting protest, but he predicts there will be more demonstrations.

"It will be an uphill battle for Carrie Lam to regain trust and respect from the public," he said. "And whether she can say no to Beijing will be key."


Saša Petricic

Senior Correspondent

Saša Petricic is a Senior Correspondent for CBC News, specializing in international coverage. He has spent the past decade reporting from abroad, most recently in Beijing as CBC's Asia Correspondent, focusing on China, Hong Kong, and North and South Korea. Before that, he covered the Middle East from Jerusalem through the Arab Spring and wars in Syria, Gaza and Libya. Over more than 30 years, he has filed stories from every continent.