As It Happens

'I was waiting for them to come': Democracy leader says China using pandemic to arrest Hong Kong protesters

Beijing and the Hong Kong government are using the coronavirus pandemic as a cover for arrests, pro-democracy party leader Martin Lee told As It Happens, after police detained more than a dozen prominent activist leaders over the weekend in connection to demonstrations held last year in the city,

‘Countries are now busy fighting viruses. What better time could they have picked?’ Martin Lee says

Former lawmaker and pro-democracy activist Martin Lee talks to members of the media as he leaves the Central District police station in Hong Kong on Saturday, after being arrested and accused of organizing and taking part in an unlawful assembly in August last year. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images)


Beijing and the Hong Kong government are using the coronavirus pandemic as a cover for arrests after police detained more than a dozen veteran pro-democracy lawmakers and activist leaders over the weekend, a pro-democracy leader says.   

Martin Lee, barrister and founder of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, said he was one of at least 14 detained Saturday on charges of organizing and participating in unlawful protests last year. 

The arrests come as Hong Kong appears to be containing the spread of COVID-19, with Johns Hopkins University reporting 1,029 confirmed cases and four deaths. The city was one of the first locations outside of mainland China to report cases of the virus. 

Lee told As It Happens host Carol Off that he had been expecting to be arrested for some time because China has been pursuing a "very hardline policy" on Hong Kong's protests. 

Here is part of their conversation. 

Mr. Lee, can you describe the arrest and what the police did? What happened?

Seven [officers] came into my flat. I said: "Can we deal with this outside of my flat, because of the coronavirus?" They said, "no we've got a search warrant." So I had to let them in. But they were very nice; they allowed their shoes to be sprayed and so on. 

Then they said we need to take away your phone and the shirt you were wearing on the date of the offence, which was last August. They had a photo of me wearing this shirt, so I showed it to my wife and she took it out. 

Media mogul and Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai Chee-ying (centre) was one of the more than a dozen veteran pro-democracy lawmakers and activists leaders detained over the weekend. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

They took me to the police station nearest to me and then they went through some documentation and took me to the police headquarters. 

All together [they held me for] about five and a half hours. At the end of it, they admitted me [on] bail. I have no complaints about my treatment from the police at all. 

This is the first time, you as the symbol of the movement in many respects, have been charged in one of these arrests. What does that say?

In fact, I was expecting it. I was waiting for them to come … because China has been pursuing a very hardline policy on Hong Kong, but the rest of the world don't seem to know about it.

That's why I got so mad [because] nobody seems to know that [Beijing] has completely changed the one country, two systems [policy]. Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy to a new one under President Xi.

Why do you think, in the middle of this pandemic, that they would bother to crack down on the pro-democracy movement at this particular time? 

The timing, from their point of view, is a very good one because so many countries are now busy fighting viruses, right? What better time can they pick? … Since [they] want to do it anyway, why not pick this time rather than wait for later? 

There's another reason, the Legislative Council elections are coming up in September, and they are extremely worried that the Pan-Democrats may actually capture more seats than their people. In other words, we may have the majority in the Legislative Council, even though our present electoral laws are so one-sided against us. 

Anti-government protesters attend a rally to call for democratic reforms in Hong Kong on Jan. 19. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

They're so worried [that] they would do everything to deter people from voting.

What should Canada say and do on the international stage about what happened to you and the others arrested over the weekend? 

Well, Canada should say: "Look here, you asked for us to support your one country, two systems. We did that and we still support it. ... Not this new policy, which is Chinese communists rule in Hong Kong." 

So surely your government should say "what the hell is happening? [China] has turned this policy upside down. We can't support you. ... Give them democracy and stop from interfering."

That's all we need. We are not asking for anything more than what is already promised and written into our basic law. 

Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Morgan Passi. Q&A is edited for length and clarity.

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