Beijing and the Hong Kong government are using the pandemic as a “golden opportunity” to crack down on dissent and the growing pro-democracy movement, according to a senior protest leader arrested over the weekend.
The Chinese military has also been making moves in the disputed South China Sea, taking advantage of the absence of other major military powers in the area.
Some analysts have suggested Beijing is sending a message that China’s aggressive foreign policy is still business as usual, or testing its adversaries for weaknesses.
The frequent protests that have rocked Hong Kong for months were already in a lull when the outbreak started, but amid fears of an epidemic in Hong Kong they have almost completely stopped.
The Chinese government and its supportive Hong Kong counterparts are taking advantage of the break to try ensure they don’t start up again.
More than 7,000 people have been arrested on charges relating to the protest rallies, some of which drew millions to the street, but the arrests of senior figures in February and then again on Saturday have drawn sharp rebuke.
Martin Lee, the 81-year-old founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic party, has said there will be more fatalities and protests if authorities try to pass anti-subversion laws – which would outlaw “sedition, subversion and the theft of state secrets” – before the September legislature election. “The Communist party won’t show any mercy” he told the Guardian. “They have already stated their stance.”
Veteran activist and politician Lee Cheuk Yan, who was arrested in both roundups, said: “They are using this opportunity of the pandemic so we can’t come out in the marches.”
The arrests drew condemnation from around the world, and China director at Human Rights Watch, Sophie Richardson, said the arrests of the 15 activists were “another nail in the coffin of ‘one country two systems’”.
Authorities maintained the action was about the rule of law, creating a deterrence, and securing the city before the protests started up again.
Meanwhile, US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has accused China of exploiting the world’s focus on the virus with “provocative behaviour”, including advancing its presence in the South China Sea.
China claims ownership of much of the South China Sea, but this is disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan and Malaysia.
State broadcaster CGTN said on Saturday that China had established administrative districts on the Paracel islands and Spratly islands, the site of overlapping ownership claims.
Vietnam’s foreign ministry quickly accused China of having “seriously violated its sovereignty”, demanding it “abolish its wrongful decisions”.
It also drew criticism from the US, but the Chinese foreign ministry accused US officials of smearing Beijing and said the vessel was conducting normal activities.
US and Australian warships also arrived in the region this week.
Vietnam also lodged a formal protest after a Chinese military ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing vessel off the coast of the Paracels, in the second such confrontation in a year.
China has also been flying regular fighter patrols near Taiwan, which China claims is part of its territory despite having never governed the island.
In mid-March the People’s Liberation Army sent warplanes across the median line of the Taiwan Strait, and briefly approached Taiwan. The move, which analysts said was at least partly to intimidate Taiwan, prompted Taiwan to scramble fighter planes to intercept.
China is also sending military flotillas past Taiwan and Japan on a semi-regular basis. Last week a six-vessel strike group led by China’s only aircraft carrier sailed through the Miyako Strait and past Taiwan, under watch by the Taiwanese and Japanese defence forces.
In January, a military flotilla, again led by the aircraft carrier, passed through the straits of Taiwan. It didn’t enter Taiwan’s waters, but did cross its air defence identification zone. (Source: The Guardian)