HONG KONG (Reuters) — Hong Kong police arrested dozens of leading democratic activists on Wednesday on suspicion of violating the city’s controversial security law in the biggest crackdown yet against the opposition camp since Beijing imposed the law in 2020.
The dawn swoop of the most prominent pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong was tied to an unofficial, independently organized vote in July 2020 to select opposition candidates for a since-postponed legislative election.
As part of the operation, police also searched the offices of a pollster and a law firm and went to the offices of media outlets Apple Daily, Stand News, and Inmediahk, according to local media.
The mass arrests, confirmed by the Democratic Party and individual social media accounts of dozens of other activists and politicians arrested, will further raise alarm that Hong Kong has taken a swift authoritarian turn.
The crackdown since the June 2020 imposition of the new security law, which critics say crushes wide-ranging freedoms, places China further on a collision course with the United States just as Joe Biden prepares to take over the presidency.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Biden’s pick for secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Twitter the arrests 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.”
The arrests, which local media said amounted to more than 50 former lawmakers, activists and people involved in organizing the 2020 primary, included James To, Lam Cheuk-ting, Benny Tai and Lester Shum.
Journalists document through a car window as pro-democracy activist Benny Tai (2nd R) is taken to a police station in Hong Kong, China January 6, 2021. (Photo: Lam Yik, Reuters)
At the time, the local government and Beijing warned the unprecedented unofficial vote may violate the new law, saying a campaign to win a majority in Hong Kong’s 70-seat legislature with the purpose of blocking government proposals to increase pressure for democratic reforms could be seen as subversive.
That reasoning was cited by police when making the Wednesday arrests, according to the Democratic Party’s Facebook page and other social media accounts of those arrested.
Police did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The legislative election was due in September last year but was postponed, with authorities citing coronavirus risks. It is unclear who could run for the opposition in any future polls following the mass arrests.
Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the raids and arrests showed Chinese authorities were now “removing the remaining veneer of democracy in the city.”
Local media said the police operation included searches of the offices of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI) which helped organize the primaries. The organizers destroyed the data of the more than 600,000 people who voted immediately after ending the count.
Public broadcaster RTHK said American lawyer John Clancey was arrested during a raid of law firm Ho, Tse, Wai & Partners.
The security law punishes what China broadly defines as secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces with up to life in jail. When the law was introduced, authorities said it would only target a very small group of people in the former British colony of 7.5 million.
Authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing say it is vital to plug gaping holes in national security defenses exposed by months of sometimes violent anti-government and anti-China protests that rocked the global financial hub in 2019.
Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy unavailable elsewhere in China when it returned to Beijing rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” agreement.
In response to the law, Washington imposed sanctions on Hong Kong and Beijing officials and several countries suspended extradition treaties.
Since the imposition of the security law, leading pro-democracy activists such as media tycoon Jimmy Lai have been arrested, some democratic lawmakers have been disqualified, activists have fled into exile, and protest slogans and songs have been declared illegal.
“The suppression of political freedom and freedom of speech by the national security law has risen to another level,” said Nathan Law, an activist who fled to Britain.
“Hong Kong people must remember this hatred. Anyone who is still defending the national security law and making peace is the enemy of Hong Kong people.”
Joshua Wong, 24, one of Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy activists, was one of more than a dozen young, more confrontational politicians who outshone the old guard in the unofficial democratic primaries in 2020.
Wong’s Twitter and Facebook accounts said his house was raided by police on Wednesday morning.
Wong was jailed last year on separate charges for organizing and inciting an unlawful assembly during the 2019 anti-government protests.
(Reporting by Yanni Chow, Yoyo Chow, Joyce Zhou, Katherine Cheng, Jessie Pang and Clare Jim; Writing by Farah Master and Marius Zaharia; Editing by Michael Perry)
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