Democracy activists arrested as Hong Kong executive voted in

Leader-elect Carrie Lam promised to "heal the divide" in Hong Kong's highly charged politics, but her opponents aren't buying it.

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

A day after Beijing's favoured candidate was chosen as the Hong Kong chief executive, leaders of Hong Kong's "Umbrella Revoltuion" were arrested.

Why were the activists arrested?

Nine activists who led a pro-democracy movement that challenged Beijing's influence and control of Hong Kong were arrested Monday and charged with "conspiracy to commit public nuisance."

The leaders of the "Umbrella Revolution", as they are known, were part of the pro-democracy protests of September 2014 that brought the bustling city at the edge of China to a complete standstill.

The arrests came a day after Lam was chosen as Hong Kong's new chief executive in an election pro-democracy activists are calling a "sham." She replaces Leung Chun Ying, whose term saw a dramatic rise of protests by pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong over the past five years. 

Protest leaders have since been freed on bail. 

A spokesman for the outgoing chief said there were "no political factors" involved in the decision, and that the charges were a long time in the making.

But Lam's move into the territory's highest office – coinciding with the arrests – signals concern over Hong Kong's limited degree of independence from Beijing. Renewed protests have emerged over concerns that Lam will continue the policies of her staunchly pro-Beijing predecessor. 

Leung was a divisive figure who ordered the firing of tear gas on pro-democracy protesters in 2014, and was seen to be out of touch with the Hong Kong street and youth's demands to protect democracy in the tiny hamlet in Communist China's shadow.

A total of 1,003 protesters were arrested as they occupied Hong Kong's central thoroughfares for several weeks in 2014, until police ended the protests by force. (AP)

What's with all the umbrellas?

Three years ago when Hong Kong's activists faced a police crackdown on a pro-democracy revolt against China's Beijing-based authorities, they were armed with little more than plastic umbrellas to shield themselves from a wave of police repression and pepper spray.

Hong Kong has always held a unique degree of autonomy in China, ever since the former colony transitioned from British to Chinese administration in 1997. The thriving hub on China's southern coast boasted economic liberalisation, its own semi-independent government, and freedoms that most on China's mainland don't yet enjoy – such as property rights and an open press.

Fears arose that autonomy was under threat when in September 2014, Beijing authorities proposed a plan to reform laws governing Hong Kong's electoral process. Concerned that the former British colony's politics are already heavily influenced by mainland China, protesters took to the streets – shutting down the heart of Hong Kong's financial district for two months.

Veterans of the pro-democracy protests – sparked by Beijing's electoral reforms – have found new cause for outrage after Lam's selection. (Reuters)

How is the Kong Kong executive chosen?

Over 7.3 million people live in Hong Kong, yet  an "election committee"  of 1,200 chooses the chief executive. The committee is accused of  being stacked with pro-China elites and establishment loyalists. Lam, who was formerly Hong Kong's top bureaucratic chief, was selected with more than twice the number of votes as her rival, John Tsang. Public opinion polls showed he was more popular.

Under Hong Kong's Basic Law – which effectively serves as a constitution for the semi-autonomous "special administrative region" –  the chief executive leads the Hong Kong government, but still reports to Chinese officials in Beijing.

Despite taking pride in a more open and progressive culture than Communist-dominated mainland China, Hong Kong's foreign relations are still under Beijing's control.

Following the vote on the weekend, several hundred protesters demonstrated in downtown Hong Kong denouncing Beijing's "interference" in the election amid widespread reports of lobbying of the 1,200 electors to back Lam over Tsang, the more populist and conciliatory finance chief.

Lam has said that she "cannot rule out" Beijing's influence in helping her win the election, the Hong Kong Free Press reported.

Renewed protests started to appear as soon as the announcement that pro-Beijing candidate Carrie Lam would take office as Hong Kong's chief executive. (Reuters)

What's the reaction to the arrests?

Hong Kong's activists fear that Lam's election could mean greater influence from Beijing. 

"The message is strong. I don't see how the society's cracks can be mended," said Chan Kin Man, a university professor seen as one of the "founders" of the Occupy Central Movement.

Amnesty International's China researcher William Nee called the timing of the prosecutions "very alarming."

"They've had years to consider these cases and they just decided to do this now. It does naturally make one think that political considerations might be at play," Nee said.

Prominent activist Joshua Lam, who was convicted of "unlawful assembly" in one of the movement's pinnacle legal battles, promised to "resist until China gives Hong Kong a say in our future."

For her part, Lam pledged to mend political rifts.

"Hong Kong, our home, is suffering from quite a serious divisiveness and has accumulated a lot of frustrations. My priority will be to heal the divide," she told reporters following the announcement of her selection.