The first expatriate to be arrested under Hong Kong’s new national security law has appealed to local democracy activists not to give up hope, comparing their movement with Ireland’s struggle for self-rule.
John Clancey, a 79-year-old American lawyer and former Catholic priest, has become an unlikely potential source of tension between Washington and Beijing just as US president-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office.
He was arrested last week alongside 52 other activists in a crackdown that has sparked concerns China is deepening a purge of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement beyond prominent politicians to civil society groups, and more peripheral supporters of the cause.
“Look at Irish history . . . They were completely hopeless for so long, but eventually they got part of Ireland — they got a republic,” Mr Clancey told the Financial Times.
“In a difficult situation we shouldn’t just give up and have no hope for the future.”
Mr Clancey was still asleep when police arrived to detain him last Wednesday. After his arrest, police escorted Mr Clancey, a Hong Kong permanent resident, to his office to conduct a search. His firm, headed by veteran lawyer Albert Ho, is known for representing anti-government activists.
His arrest has stirred fears authorities will target lawyers in Hong Kong who represent opposition figures in political cases — a tactic common in mainland China.
Before moving to Asia, Mr Clancey helped with voter registration during the 1960s US civil rights movement, during which he said he became a fan of Martin Luther King.
He began working as a Catholic priest in Hong Kong in 1968 and eventually left the priesthood to marry in 1985. He retrained as a lawyer in his 50s after working with labour rights activists.
The lawyer said the city had suffered similar periods of hopelessness about the prospects of democracy before, such as under British colonial rule. “During those dark days people were asking for democracy and it didn’t look hopeful at all,” he said. “Long-term, I’m still optimistic,” adding it was “good for China and Hong Kong”.
Mr Clancey’s arrest has been linked to his role as treasurer of Power for Democracy, a civil society group that was involved in a primary vote organised by Hong Kong’s opposition last year to determine which candidates would run in elections for the Legislative Council, the city’s de facto parliament. He was released after his arrest and has yet to be charged.
The city’s government subsequently postponed the election.
The government has accused those arrested last Wednesday of attempting to “subvert” Chinese state power by organising the runoff. Subversion is punishable with up to life in prison under the new security law.
Caught by surprise at the strength of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, Beijing has blamed foreigners for stirring up the demonstrations that often ended in violent clashes.
There are expatriate lawyers dotted throughout the city’s internationally respected legal system, which underpins its role as a financial hub.
The US consulate general has offered Mr Clancey assistance, a person familiar with the matter said.
Mr Clancey said, however, he did not expect any special treatment based on his citizenship but just his rights as a permanent resident under Hong Kong’s mini constitution, which includes a right to vote. He said he had no plans to flee the city.