About 50 pro-democracy activists and politicians have reportedly been arrested in Hong Kong’s biggest crackdown since the introduction of a controversial national security law.
The arrests are said to be linked to an independently organised primary vote, officers are also understood to have searched the house of the detained democracy activist Joshua Wong, raided a law firm and pressed news outlets to hand over information, it is unclear if the action is related. Police have yet to comment on the various moves officially, the Democratic Party’s Facebook page said the arrests were carried out under the security law imposed by Beijing on the territory last June in response to months of pro-democracy protests. Among those detained are thought to be well-known opposition figures like James To, Lam Cheuk Ting, Lester Shum and Benny Tai, one of the initiators of the primaries, according to local media reports, a US citizen working in Hong Kong as a lawyer on human rights cases has also been detained.
In July, an alliance of opposition parties ran independently organised primaries to see which of their candidates had the best chances in September’s election for the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament, more than 600,000 people voted in the primaries. The September election was later postponed, with officials citing concerns over the pandemic as the reason for the delay. The opposition groups had hoped that winning more seats would give them enough power to block government proposals and increase pressure for democratic reforms, Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam had warned at the time the primaries could amount to subversion. Most of the opposition lawmakers in the current LegCo resigned in November en-masse in protest to four of them being dismissed from parliament. Aside from the string of arrests and the raid of Joshua Wong’s home, police have also asked media outlets Stand News, Apple Daily and In-Media to hand over documents related to the national security law.
The new security law has spread what activists often call “white terror” across the city. When authorities introduced the law, they claimed it would target only a small number of activists, but the wide-ranging nature of today’s operation has led many to fear that authorities are now trying to eliminate the entire opposition camp. The legislation already has all but silenced the street protest movement and led to a growing number of activists fleeing the territory. Today’s arrests represent the largest crackdown on the pro-democracy camp since the law was introduced. If charged under the new national security law, they could face life in prison, Wednesday’s sweeping arrests have been widely condemned internationally. Antony Blink, the pick for next US Secretary of State by President-elect Joe Biden, said they were an “assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights”. “The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”
Nathan Law, a prominent Hong Kong activist who fled the territory in July last year said the widespread arrests had taken “the suppression of political freedom and freedom of speech” to “another level”. “Anyone who is still defending the National Security Law and making peace is the enemy of Hong Kong people.” The security law punishes what China broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in jail. It has been widely criticised by rights groups and Western nations as effectively curtailing dissent.
A former British colony, Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997, it retained more civil and political freedoms than the mainland has. Activists say that over the past years, these freedoms have been eroded while pro-democracy protests have often led to violent clashes with police.
The Chinese government has defended the law, saying it will help return stability to the territory, which has been shaken by pro-democracy protests, and bring it more into line with the Chinese mainland. After the law was introduced, a number of pro-democracy groups disbanded out of fears for their safety. Over the past weeks and months, several high profile court cases under the security law have gotten underway.