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Hong Kong Police Arrest Activists

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

More than 50 people were arrested in Hong Kong in morning raids yesterday. It is the biggest roundup of pro-democracy activists and politicians since a new national security law was introduced last summer. NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch looks at what's behind this latest move.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: After the Chinese government sent the army into Tiananmen Square in 1989, killing possibly thousands of pro-democracy protesters, it paid a price. There was outcry from the international community and economic and political sanctions for years. But it learned from the experience, and now it's applying those lessons in Hong Kong.

JEFFREY WASSERSTROM: What's been happening in Hong Kong is everything that happened, repression-wise, in 1989 except the massacre.

RUWITCH: Jeffrey Wasserstrom is a historian at the University of California, Irvine.

WASSERSTROM: These moves in Hong Kong have been an attempt, I think, by Beijing to have that same kind of deterrent effect without having the equivalent to the "Tank Man" photograph.

RUWITCH: And that has had one big consequence, he says - less global alarm. When Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong, critics feared it would be used to silence dissent. And these arrests seem to confirm those fears. But Ho-Fung Hung of Johns Hopkins University says China feels like now might be the time to take a chance.

HO-FUNG HUNG: What they fear most is this U.S. pushback for sanctions and things like that that now that U.S. is in the transition mode. So it is a kind of a time that they think that they can do whatever they want.

RUWITCH: The arrests come just days after Beijing reached an investment deal with Europe that was years in the making and shine a light on the leadership's thinking.

HUNG: China's calculation is that European is desperate to have this deal.

RUWITCH: Desperate because China offers a huge market. And while other economies are struggling because of the pandemic, China's is humming. The China-EU agreement isn't ratified, and yesterday's arrests may put it at risk. A trade agreement with Pacific nations inked a few weeks ago may also be in play, but Chinese leader Xi Jinping seems to think otherwise and not without reason, says Wasserstrom.

WASSERSTROM: The Chinese Communist Party has made a whole series of moves during the last year or even the last years, and there haven't been dramatic consequences, really.

RUWITCH: Trump's sanctioned some Chinese companies and officials and moved to revoke Hong Kong's special trade status. And some European countries have spoken out against Beijing's tightening grip on the former British colony. Donald Clarke of George Washington University Law says pushback on these arrests might not change China's course but could help.

DONALD CLARKE: A robust response could lead to, you know, a decision by the Hong Kong and PRC authorities to impose, you know, less harsh sentences than they were planning or indeed to acquit some.

RUWITCH: But to really get Xi's attention, some experts say, it would take something like coordinated sanctions on top Chinese officials and possibly even on Xi himself or a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics, which China is hosting. Steve Tsang of the University of London says even if that doesn't happen, Beijing still pays a price for its actions in Hong Kong.

STEVE TSANG: If we are looking at the overall interests of China as a whole, I think the policy is backfiring because a vibrant, prosperous, successful Hong Kong is in the best interest of China, not only of Hong Kong.

RUWITCH: But he says backfiring isn't an issue if your main concern is the Communist Party's power and Xi Jinping's grip on it.

John Ruwitch, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.