Under the 2020 National Security Law, intimidation of activists and journalists and self-censorship are on the rise.
Hong Kong police have charged dozens of pro-democracy activists with “subversion”, in the largest single crackdown on the opposition under a China-imposed national security law.
Last month 55 of the city’s best-known democracy campaigners were arrested in a series of dawn raids.
On Sunday, police confirmed 47 of them had been charged with one count each of “conspiracy to commit subversion” – one of the new national security crimes – and would appear in court on Monday morning.
The security law, imposed on the city last June, criminalises acts deemed to be subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Those charged are routinely denied bail until trial and face up to life in prison if convicted.
Sam Cheung, a young activist and a participant in an unofficial primary election last summer, was charged after reporting to a local police station, dressed in a black mask and accompanied by his wife.
“Hong Kongers have a really tough time these days,” he told reporters before entering the station.
“I hope everyone won’t give up on Hong Kong … (and) fight on.”
Cheung was arrested in a dawn raid along with more than 50 other democrats on January 6 in the largest national security operation since the law was passed in June.
They were accused of organising and participating in an unofficial “primary election” last July aimed at selecting the strongest candidates for a legislative council election.
Beijing is battling to stamp out dissent in semi-autonomous Hong Kong after swaths of the population hit the streets in 2019 in huge and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests.
The charged activists are a broad cross-section of Hong Kong’s opposition, from veteran former pro-democracy lawmakers such as James To and Claudia Mo to academics, lawyers, social workers and a host of youth activists.
Some struck a cautiously defiant tone as they prepared to report to police on Sunday to hear the charges.
“Democracy is never a gift from heaven. It must be earned by many with strong will,” Jimmy Sham, a key organiser of 2019’s huge protests, told reporters outside a police station.
“We can tell the whole world, under the most painful system, Hong Kongers are the light of the city. We will remain strong and fight for what we want,” he added.
Gwyneth Ho, a young journalist turned activist, posted on her Facebook page before being charged: “I hope everyone can find their road to peace of mind and then press forward with indomitable will”.
The alleged offence of those arrested for subversion was to organise an unofficial primary last summer to choose candidates for the city’s partially elected legislature, in hopes that the pro-democracy bloc might take a majority for the first time.
Many of those candidates were ultimately disqualified from standing, and authorities scrapped the election because of the coronavirus.
But Chinese and Hong Kong officials described the primary as an attempt to “overthrow” and “paralyse” the city’s government and therefore a threat to national security.
Al Jazeera’s Adrian Brown, reporting from Hong Kong, said the move to charge the activists suggested the crackdown by Chinese authorities on dissent had moved from the leaders to the “foot soldiers” of the pro-democracy movement.
“In today’s Hong Kong, strategising about how to win an election is now a violation of the national security law,” he said.
Western nations have accused Beijing of using its crackdown to shred the freedoms that were promised under the “one country, two systems” setup when the former British colony was returned to China.
After last month’s arrests the UN’s rights watchdog said the sweep confirmed fears the security law was “being used to detain individuals for exercising legitimate rights to participate in political and public life”.
Beijing said the security law would target only an “extreme minority” and was needed to restore stability.
Brown said the choice faced by many pro-democracy activists was effectively either to stay silent or leave Hong Kong.
“And more and more people are applying to go, especially to Britain which has offered very generous residency terms,” he said. “And I think that once COVID-19 has been suppressed, you will see a steady exodus out of Hong Kong.”