Why were Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and others arrested today?

By Jerome A. Cohen

Here’s a good story from today’s Washington Post on the arrest of Joshua Wong and other Hong Kong young democracy activists. I note that Joshua and Agnes were very promptly released on bail, in contrast to some arrests where Hong Kong police and courts have seemed very slow in granting bail. That was probably in order not to add to the provocation that the arrests would cause, increasing the likelihood that people will spill into the streets on Saturday.

Ironically, the timing of the arrests was evidently inspired by the desire to diminish the possibility of a major demonstration in defiance of the disapproval to hold it. The events that led to the arrest reportedly occurred on June 21. Why on August 30 did the arrests suddenly occur as everyone was preparing to hold the new demonstrations despite the refusal of approval? Not because Joshua et al were leading this Saturday’s preparations but because the authorities wanted to make clear to prospective violators what lies ahead for them if they take part despite non-approval. This is classic deterrence strategy.

Was the denial of approval of tomorrow’s events reasonable? For the assembly as well as the march? Are there leaders who intend to violate the prohibition? The Washington Post story notes that a prominent organizer disclaims any intent to go forward contrary to the denial of permission. Will thousands of ordinary people, without apparent leaders, nevertheless move forward to hold a rally and inevitably leave together in the streets after its conclusion?

The police have already arrested 800 over the past three months. Will they arrest several hundred thousand tomorrow for flagrantly violating a prohibition that huge numbers of people deem unreasonable? The legitimacy of the government refusal depends on its reasonableness in light of community values and customs.

And what about October 1? If two million citizens violate the denial to protest, can they all be arrested, detained and punished? This is where the system breaks down and where things are heading, and that is why Joshua et al were arrested today, seemingly irrelevantly on the brink of tomorrow’s events, for events that occurred June 21.

Finally, Beijing is of course calling the shots about the action of the Hong Kong police, although I hesitate to use that metaphor.