Senior figures in the EU have rounded on China over Beijing's latest crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong.
The strong rebuke comes after Hong Kong police arrested 53 people in dawn raids on democracy activists on Wednesday, in the biggest crackdown since China last year imposed a security law which opponents say is aimed at quashing dissent in the former British colony.
Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy advocates were arrested in raids on 72 premises as the authorities said last year’s unofficial vote to choose opposition candidates in city elections was part of a plan to “overthrow” the government.
The arrests were linked to an unprecedented, independently organised and non-binding vote to select opposition candidates for a since-postponed legislative election.
“The arrests demonstrate that despite widespread international condemnation, the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities remain undeterred in their determination to destroy the last remnants of Hong Kong’s autonomy, freedoms and rule of law“ MEP co-chairs of the Hong Kong Watch Group of the European Parliament
Some have accused the EU of double standards in its relations with China, an accusation again made this week after the EU and China agreed to an investment deal that will give European companies greater access to Chinese markets and help redress what Europe sees as unbalanced economic ties.
At a news briefing, the European Commission was asked if the agreement was tantamount to “an open cheque to the regime” in China.
A Commission spokesman denied this and condemned the arrests in Hong Kong which aimed to “crush” dissent. He said the arrests had “sent a clear signal that democratic protests are no longer tolerated in Hong Kong.”
He added, “We call on China to immediately release those who have been arrested.”
He said the case was a “matter of concern” and that the Commission was “closely following developments.”
He added that sanctions against China were among a range of “possible options” open to the EU. But he warned, “For this, we would need unanimity in Member States.”
Meanwhile, the co-chairs of the Hong Kong Watch Group of the European Parliament said they are “united in condemnation” of the arrests.
They called on Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen, presidents of the Council and Commission, and EU High Representative Josep Borrell as well as EU member states' governments to take “urgent action.”
A statement, signed by Reinhard Bütikofer (Greens/EFA); Miriam Lexmann (EPP); Petras Austrevicius (Re); Juan Fernando López Aguilar (S&D) and Anna Fotyga (ECR), said, “Those arrested had taken part in primary polling for pro-democracy groups last year, with the aim of standing in the later illegitimately postponed Legislative Council elections.
It continued, “Many are reportedly held under the spurious charges of ‘subversion’ under the Hong Kong National Security Law, providing further proof that this law is being used to crackdown on all forms of political opposition in the city.”
“We appeal to member states and the international community to provide a lifeboat policy for persecuted Hong Kong democrats” MEP co-chairs of the Hong Kong Watch Group of the European Parliament
It goes on, “The arrests demonstrate that despite widespread international condemnation, the Chinese and Hong Kong authorities remain undeterred in their determination to destroy the last remnants of Hong Kong’s autonomy, freedoms and rule of law.”
“The Chinese government is making clear and repeated breaches of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty registered at the United Nations.”
The statement concludes “We call on EU leaders to honour their past promises to the people of Hong Kong, to lodge strong and public protests with the PRC (People's Republic of China) over this act of oppression and bear them in mind in all aspects of our relations with the PRC, to take the initiative to raise this issue at the UN Security Council, and to start the procedure to sanction at least against Carrie Lam [the Chief Executive of Hong Kong] under the EU's new Global Human Rights Sanctions Mechanism.
“We appeal to member states and the international community to provide a lifeboat policy for persecuted Hong Kong democrats.”