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Former lawmaker and pro-democracy activist Martin Lee, second left, leaves the Central District police station in Hong Kong on April 18, 2020, after being arrested and accused of organizing and taking part in unlawful assemblies in August and October last year.ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images

Seven police officers came into Martin Lee’s Hong Kong home on Saturday, brandishing a search warrant. They left with two pieces of evidence – his mobile phone and a T-shirt he wore during a protest march last year – and with Mr. Lee himself, the man considered the father of democracy in the Asian financial centre.

Mr. Lee was one of 15 high-profile activists arrested in a weekend sweep. The arrests created shock in Hong Kong, but Mr. Lee, 81, expressed little surprise. “The police are completely the masters in Hong Kong. They are running this place,” he said in an interview Monday, after he was released on bail. In that context, “a midnight knock on the door is to be expected. They are really very decent – they came almost midday. I can’t complain.”

The arrests were made amid a flurry of statements and legal interpretations that further strengthened the hand of Beijing in the Asian financial centre.

Opinion: In Hong Kong, officials work to stop another kind of outbreak: democracy

They also continue a broad effort by Hong Kong police against participants in a series of protests, many of them violent, that began last year when the city’s leadership introduced a bill that would have enabled extradition to China. By mid-March, police had arrested 7,854 people on a series of charges, including taking part in a riot, unlawful assembly, assault, arson and possession of an offensive weapon. A total of 1,252 people have been charged, according to Hong Kong Police.

“Hong Kong upholds the rule of law. No one is above the law,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Monday. He admonished foreign critics to “stop bolstering anti-China rioters and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.”

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne, in a statement released early Monday, called the arrests an “extraordinary measure” that “calls for close scrutiny.”

But international expressions of concern are unlikely to sway authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing, said Anson Chan, a former chief secretary in Hong Kong who has been openly critical of China’s Communist rulers.

“They really are throwing caution to the wind. They don’t much care about how it is regarded here or overseas,” she said. “They are determined to demonstrate who is the boss – and to clamp down even further on Hong Kong’s rights.”

Many of the people arrested on Saturday have been previously arrested for acts of civil disobedience. It was the third arrest for Mr. Lee. It was the fifth for Albert Ho, a former legislator with the city’s Democratic Party. And Avery Ng, a pro-democracy activist, was released from prison just three weeks ago. On Saturday, eight officers came to his door, arresting him on accusations of organizing and knowingly participating, twice, in unauthorized assemblies last year. “It’s a strong escalation on the crackdown by the Beijing government,” he said.

The protests were unauthorized, he noted, because police declined to authorize them. Authorities are “bullying us into silence,” Mr. Ng said.

He says he believes the arrests are an attempt to neutralize people who might oppose national security legislation that would prohibit treason, secession or “subversion against the Central People’s Government.” Such legislation is required by the city’s constitution-like Basic Law, but has not been passed. However, new calls have emerged in the past week from local and Chinese leaders alike to set in place national security rules.

”The arrest and suppression of our street protests and protest movement is to clear the way for the legislation,” said activist and former politician Lee Cheuk-yan, who was also among those arrested. ”Beijing always sees Hong Kong as a threat to national security, including all our marches and protests and our demands for democracy.”

Those worries may be unfounded: Hong Kong leadership is “not keen” to push forward legislation that could spark a new round of protests, said Johannes Chan, a constitutional expert who is former dean of the faculty of law at the University of Hong Kong. “It will be political suicide for a rather weak government to push such a controversial bill,” he said.

But worry about eroding conditions in Hong Kong have extended beyond activists. On Monday, Fitch Ratings downgraded the city’s credit rating, citing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the “lingering uncertainty” of unresolved issues that “entrenches the risk of renewed bouts of public discontent, which could further tarnish international perceptions of the territory’s governance, institutions, and political stability.”

Fitch also warned that “Hong Kong’s gradual integration” into China’s “national governance system” means that its ratings should be closer aligned with those of China. A spokesperson for the Hong Kong government responded in a statement Monday, saying “the view that Hong Kong’s rising economic and financial ties with the Mainland is credit negative is … ungrounded.”

Criticism of Hong Kong police is also unfair, said Grenville Cross, a criminal justice analyst who is a former director of public prosecutions in Hong Kong.

“The protest movement, and its international backers, have mounted an insidious campaign to smear the reputation of the police, and the reason for this is that the force has been so successful in controlling their excesses and upholding law and order,” he said.

Mr. Lee, however, placed fault with Chinese leadership. “The only thing they know is to suppress, suppress, suppress, arrest, charge,” he said.

But, he said, “the Communists shouldn’t be running this place to begin with. It should be Hong Kong people running Hong Kong.”

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