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Martin Lee: “Hong Kong people now face two plagues from China: the coronavirus and attacks on our most basic human rights.”


tan tian Buddha by Kon Karampelas courtesy of

The Washington Post ran an op-ed by Martin Lee, a Hong Kong human-rights activist, on April 20.  He was arrested on April 18 and he says in the op-ed: “They took as evidence my cellphone and the T-shirt I wore to a demonstration last August that drew 1.7 million people [article in Guardian]— about a quarter of the population.”  He was arrested and, apparently, released on bail.  His crime?  Participating in that huge demonstration, which didn’t have a permit despite its size.

Hong Kong’s government had been liberal in allowing permits for demonstrations that did not interfere with public order.  Since the pandemic struck, the people have been unwilling to come out in public to protest and endanger their health by promoting contagion.

This arrest tells you immediately what sort of police state the Chinese Communist Party rules over.  In a neighboring territory, Hong Kong, which is advertised as operating under “one country, two systems” and is protected by a Basic Law (a sort of constitution), one can now be subject to arrest for “subversion” or “sedition”.

Article 22 of the Basic Law states “No department of the Central People’s Government … may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own in accordance with this Law.”  This restriction is being ignored by Chinese officials who “interfere in the affairs [of Hong Kong government]” with impunity because people no longer protest in public.

“Subversion” and “sedition” are terms not often used in American politics because we value “liberty” more than we value “order”.  Liberty, under the First Amendment to our Constitution, guarantees “freedom of speech” and the right to peacefully advocate for lawful change.

Freedom of speech, however, does not give us the right to advocate violent overthrow of our government, nor the right “to shout ‘fire’ in a crowded theater”.  In other words, it is not lawful to try to incite panic or, for example, encourage violent attempts to exit a place that is in danger of being overwhelmed by conflagration.

“Sedition” is sometimes defined as:

“an illegal action inciting resistance to lawful authority and tending to cause the disruption or overthrow of the government

This means that there is a gray area between peacefully protesting and advocating constitutional change, by voting or by passing changes to laws that are unpopular or inappropriate– and unlawfully advocating for extra-constitutional change through disruption of government, such as a coup or widespread violations of constitutional law.  Some protesters, desperate for change, may be willing to be arrested for advocating a change that is threatening to the government– civil disobedience.

Totalitarian governments are hypersensitive to protest and interpret any disagreement with the views of authorities as a threat.  These governments redefine “subversion” and “sedition” in ways that, in this country, infringe upon our First Amendment rights to speak and peacefully petition the government “for redress of grievances”.

The Chinese government and the Chinese Communist Party are particularly sensitive to any speech or public expressions that may cause people to advocate for change.  This is most obvious in the Chinese government’s treatment of protests that have garnered the vocal, public support of at least a quarter of the population of Hong Kong– even without a permit to demonstrate.

These officially unsanctioned protests have occurred against a background of a society in Hong Kong that tends to be submissive and consensus-seeking.  The consensus among the people of Hong Kong has turned towards revolt against the Chinese government’s encroachment on personal freedoms, but since the onset of COVID-19, people are choosing safety from infection over peaceful protest.

Demonstrations against the Chinese government’s attempts to force Hong Kong citizens to submit to Chinese laws that severely restrict dissent have stopped because there is a pandemic raging.  Social activities in which people cannot observe “social distancing”– staying 6 feet apart and wearing masks– have ended.

This silence has allowed the Chinese government to tighten its hold upon Hong Kong without fear of public dissent.  Under cover of the pandemic, the Chinese government has set about arresting and punishing public figures who have participated in the demonstrations of last year.

These demonstrations were technically illegal because a permit for public assembly had been denied in certain cases (where disruption of commerce or other risks were perceived by the local government).  The local government, however, had chosen not to enforce that law because of extremely widespread public support for those demonstrations.  Apparent public silence, after many years of giant demonstrations, has given the Chinese government cover to come in and punish those who dare to commit “subversion” and “sedition” according to their hypersensitive interpretation of dissent.

Dissent in Hong Kong is being suppressed by the Chinese government in violation of the “one country, two systems” principle.  The pandemic has given them the cover they needed to proceed with their attacks upon basic civil liberties in the territory of Hong Kong.  The only Chinese territory that the Chinese central government cannot control is Taiwan.  We must support the independent democratic government on the island of Taiwan to show the Chinese people what good governance actually looks like, as opposed to the totalitarian surveillance state administered by the Chinese Communist Party on the mainland.

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