Dozens of Hong Kong opposition politicians and activists were arrested on Wednesday under the territory’s national security law, and accused of “subversion” over the primaries Democrats held last July to choose their candidates for legislative elections that were eventually postponed.
Police confirmed 53 people between the ages of 23 and 64 had been arrested in the raids, which began in the early morning and are the biggest crackdown so far under a security law that was imposed by Beijing on June 30.
“They are suspected of subversion,” Superintendent Li Kwai-wah told the media.
Six were arrested for subverting state power by organising the unofficial primaries, while the rest were arrested for participating in the event, Li said. About 1,000 members of the police took part in the raids, he said, warning that more arrests could be made.
Secretary for Security John Lee said the group had planned to cause “serious damage” to society and that authorities would not tolerate any subversive acts.
“The operation today targets the active elements who are suspected to be involved in the crime of overthrowing or interfering seriously to destroy the Hong Kong government’s legal execution of duties,” Lee told reporters.
The Democratic Party – the city’s largest opposition party – said earlier police arrested people for taking part in the candidate primaries for the now-delayed Legislative Council (Legco) election. At the time, the Hong Kong government and Beijing said the primaries, in which hundreds of thousands of people voted, could breach the national security law.
Those arrested include former legislators, district councillors, academics, student activists, as well as the organisers of last year’s mass marches against a now shelved extradition bill.
At a news briefing to address the mass arrests, Hong Kong democracy activists called on the government to release “political prisoners”. They said the raids were “shameful” and represented the oppression of the right to vote.
But in Beijing, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying defended the dragnet, saying it only impeded the “freedom of some external forces and individuals” in Hong Kong “to collude with each other to attempt to undermine China’s stability and security”.
All of the pro-democracy candidates in the unofficial primaries were arrested, according to tallies of the arrests reported by the South China Morning Post, online platform Now News and political groups.
At least seven members of the Democratic Party were arrested, including the former party chairman, Wu Chi-wai. Former legislators Lam Cheuk-ting, Helena Wong and James To were also arrested, according to a post on the party’s Facebook page.
In a video released by Lam on his Facebook page, police turned up at his house and told him he was “suspected of violating the national security law, subverting state power”.
Benny Tai, a key figure in Hong Kong’s 2014 Occupy Central protests and a former law professor, was also arrested, reports said. Tai was one of the main organisers of the primaries.
Local media said John Clancey, an American citizen and working in a law firm that has represented many opposition politicians, was also arrested. Video footage showed the white-haired Clancey, who is also the treasurer of the group that helped organise the primaries and a Hong Kong permanent resident, leaving his office with police officers.
“The Chinese government has decided to mark 2021 with sweeping arrests of over 50 prominent pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, removing the remaining veneer of democracy in the city,” Maya Wang, Human Rights Watch’s China researcher, said in a statement. “Beijing has one again failed to learn from its mistakes in Hong Kong: that repression generates resistance, and that millions of Hong Kong people will persist in their struggle for their right to vote and run for office in a democratically elected government.”
Legco has 70 members, but only half are chosen through direct elections, and the pro-democracy camp hoped the primaries would help them form a powerful group that could better scrutinise the executive and hold the territory’s administration to account.
In any event, the elections did not even happen – the government delayed the polls for a year until September 2021, citing coronavirus risks.
“We strongly condemn the arrests of 52 (sic) pro-democracy politicians who ran in the primaries last July that drew 600,000+ Hong Kongers,” said the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a Washington, DC-based group that campaigns for the territory’s freedoms and autonomy. “Make no mistake – this is what authoritarian regimes and dictators do.”
Beijing imposed the security legislation – approved in record time and with no oversight from Hong Kong – in a move it said was necessary to deal with “separatism” and “foreign interference” after months of sometimes violent protests in 2019 that were triggered by plans for an extradition bill with the mainland, but evolved into wider calls for democracy.
The law punishes crimes of secession, sedition and collusion with foreign forces with terms of up to life in prison. The details of the legislation were not revealed until after it was passed.
I can’t even.
it’s barely 2021.
and the HK gov is trying to arrest the entire opposition. for wanting to win a majority in the election. saying that’s “subversion”.
hello world, time to wake up. https://t.co/qF1EOT4HWb
— lokman tsui 😷 (@lokmantsui) January 5, 2021
Last July I wrote: “It seems entirely possible that the authorities will use these ‘illegal’ primaries as a basis for mass disqualification & even arrest of any pan-democrat politicians involved in the primary.” Sadly in HK now the most extreme possibilities are everyday reality. https://t.co/DSBEB364Wi
— Antony Dapiran (@antd) January 6, 2021
The law prompted criticism that it would destroy the freedoms and autonomy that were promised for at least 50 years under the terms of the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.
The United States, already embroiled in a trade war with China, withdrew Hong Kong’s special status after the law was enacted saying the territory had lost its autonomy. It has also imposed sanctions on top officials from China and Hong Kong, including chief executive Carrie Lam.
On Wednesday, comments on Twitter from incoming US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken indicated that the new administration, which will take office after Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, would maintain the tough stance.
“The sweeping arrests of pro-democracy protesters are an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights,” Blinken wrote. “The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”
Gregory Meeks, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the US, said the security law was being used to “ruthlessly attack Hong Kongers”.
Four people have been charged so far under the law including media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who was returned to prison last month after the government appealed a court decision to allow him bail under strict conditions that confined him to his home.
Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, who is in Hong Kong, said Wednesday’s crackdown was “very significant. It’s the largest mass arrest we’ve seen in Hong Kong since the imposition of the National Security Law.”
As the crackdown continued on Wednesday, police also visited the home of prominent activist Joshua Wong, who was jailed last month for taking part in an unauthorised assembly, and the offices of a number of online media groups including Apple Daily, In-Media and Stand News, with the latter’s journalists streaming the police’s arrival on Facebook. The media groups have been given seven days to provide “documents in connection with national security cases,” they said.
“This ruthless legislation gives the Beijing and Hong Kong authorities free rein to crush any dissenting views and puts all government critics at risk of imprisonment,” Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra said in a statement.
“Charging dozens of pro-democracy lawmakers and activists with ‘subversion’, just because they held their own informal primary contest, is a blatant attack on their rights to peaceful expression and association. People have a legitimate right to take part in public affairs. Political opposition should not be silenced just because the authorities don’t like it.”