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China is using the cover of coronavirus to escalate its repression in Hong Kong

Washington Post Opinion 5 March 2020
Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai, center, leaves the Kowloon City police station in Hong Kong on Friday after being arrested on the suspicion of taking part in an unauthorized assembly on Aug. 31, 2019. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP via Getty Images)

THE PRO-DEMOCRACY demonstrations that rocked Hong Kong last year have lulled, in part because the city is under partial lockdown to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. You’d think Chinese Communist authorities and their hugely unpopular representatives in the city would breathe a sigh of relief and focus on keeping the population healthy. Instead, they chose last week to escalate the repression of opposition leaders.

On Friday, police arrested Jimmy Lai, the founder of the pro-opposition newspaper Apple Daily, along with two well-known politicians, Lee Cheuk-yan and Yeung Sum. They were charged with participating in an unauthorized march more than six months ago, on Aug. 31, a day hundreds of thousands took to the streets, prompting bloody assaults by police. Mr. Lai was also charged with criminal intimidation for a 2017 incident in which he exchanged words with a pro-regime journalist.

Why now? It may be that Beijing sees an opportunity to dispose of key opponents in Hong Kong while the country and the world are preoccupied with the epidemic. A hard-line ally of President Xi Jinping was recently installed as head of the office overseeing the region. Days before the arrests, authorities announced that the head of a Hong Kong publishing house that produced uncensored books about Chinese leaders, Gui Minhai, had been sentenced to 10 years in prison.