HONG KONG – Dozens of leading democratic activists were arrested by the Hong Kong police on Wednesday on suspicion of violating the city’s controversial security law. This will be the biggest crackdown against the opposition camp since Beijing imposed the law in 2020.
The arrests were confirmed by the Democratic Party and the social media accounts of activists and arrested politicians. This move has raised alarm regarding Hong Kong’s swift authoritarian turn.
As part of the crackdown, 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.
The arrest of the most prominent pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong was tied to an unofficial, independently organised vote in July 2020 to select opposition candidates for a legislative election, which has been postponed since then.
The arrests, which amount to about 50 former lawmakers, activists and people involved in organising the 2020 primary, included James To, Lam Cheuk-ting, Benny Tai and Lester Shum.
At the time, the local government and Beijing warned that the vote may violate the new law, stating that a campaign to win a majority in Hong Kong’s 70-seat legislature to put a stop to government proposals and to increase pressure for democratic reforms could be seen as disruptive.
The legislative election was due in September last year but was postponed, with authorities citing coronavirus risks. With these current arrests, it is unclear who could run for the opposition in any future polls.
With Joe Biden set to take over the presidency, these crackdowns which began after the imposition of the new security law on June 2020 will set China on a collision course with the US.
Joe Biden’s secretary of state Antony Blinken tweeted that 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.”
Maya Wang, the 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 organise the primaries. The organisers destroyed the data of all those who votes soon after the counting came to an end.
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.