Hong Kong authorities on Friday charged pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong with organizing an illegal protest as they tighten a clampdown on unrest that has plunged the Asian financial hub into its biggest political crisis in more than two decades.
Wong, who led pro-democracy demonstrations five years ago that foreshadowed the latest turbulence, is the most prominent activist to be arrested since protests escalated in mid-June over fears China is exerting greater control over the city.
Police arrested several other activists and blocked plans for a mass demonstration on Saturday, in a show of force a day before the fifth anniversary of China’s decision to rule out universal suffrage in the former British colony.
The bespectacled Wong, who was 17 when he became the face of the student-led Umbrella Movement, as the 2014 pro-democracy protests were called, has not been a prominent figure in the latest protests, which have no identifiable leaders.
He was released from jail in June after serving a five-week term for contempt of court.
Wong and fellow activist Agnes Chow were charged with unlawfully organizing a public meeting outside police headquarters on June 21. They were released on bail and the case was adjourned until Nov. 8.
“Two months ago I served all of my jail sentence and left prison. Unfortunately, under the chilling effects generated by Beijing and Hong Kong governments, we are strongly aware how they arrest activists no matter whether they behave progressively or moderately,” he told reporters.
“All we ask for is just to urge Beijing and Hong Kong governments to withdraw the bill, stop police brutality and respond to our calls for a free election.”
Thousands of demonstrators blockaded police headquarters on June 21 protesting against a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial in Communist Party-controlled courts.
More than three months of unrest has evolved into calls for greater democracy under the “one country, two systems” formula, by which Hong Kong has been ruled since 1997, guaranteeing freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland.
Protesters are riled by perceived interference by China that undermines that formula.
China denies the accusation. It has denounced the protests and warned of the damage to Hong Kong’s economy.
It has also accused foreign powers, particularly the United States and Britain, of fomenting the demonstrations and warned against foreign interference.
Andy Chan, a founder of the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party that was banned last September, was arrested at Hong Kong airport on Thursday on suspicion of participating in riots and attacking police, police said.
Wong’s pro-democracy group, Demosisto, said the arrests were an attempt to scapegoat individuals in a movement that has built momentum without public figureheads.
“The arrests were apparently a political operation,” Demosisto said on its Facebook page. “It will only make the government misjudge the public, leading to a deadly situation that is more difficult to resolve.”
The Civil Human Rights Front, the organizer of previous protests, canceled a mass demonstration planned for Saturday after the police refused permission.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam previously requested Beijing’s approval for a plan to ease tension, evidence of the extent to which China is controlling the Hong Kong government’s response to the unrest.
Nearly 900 people have been arrested since the demonstrations began with frequent clashes between protesters and police, who have at times fired tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds.
With protesters and authorities locked in an impasse, as Hong Kong faces its first recession in a decade, speculation has grown that the city government may impose emergency law, giving it extra powers over detentions, censorship and curfews.
Hong Kong’s July retail sales sank the most since February 2016, government data showed on Friday.
The government would consider using “all laws” to prevent violence, Hong Kong leader Lam, who has become a lightning rod for protesters’ anger, said this week.
Hong Kong was a long way from having to make use of emergency powers, a senior official of China’s parliament told Reuters on Friday.
China brought fresh troops into Hong Kong on Thursday in what it said was a routine rotation of its garrison.