Hong Kong police arrested more than 50 pro-democracy politicians, former lawmakers and activists in morning raids on Wednesday that effectively wiped out the entire political opposition in what one critic called a “reign of terror.”
Deploying some 1,000 officers, the police carried out the stunning assault on the city’s pro-democracy movement using a new national security law written and passed in Beijing last year, legislation that raised the cost of dissent in the former British colony to life imprisonment.
The mass arrests were the biggest to target opposition leaders since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, when Communist Party leaders promised that the city would enjoy civil liberties unavailable elsewhere in China and, eventually, democratic elections. But even before the Wednesday operation, democracy advocates said the distinction between the city and the mainland was fast eroding under the assertive rule of President Xi Jinping.
The arrested are accused of “subverting state power” by organizing or participating in a poll for pro-democracy activists in July, which was aimed at helping democrats win a majority in Hong Kong’s legislature. A lawyer who is an American citizen involved in the poll was also arrested.
Police said the democrats intended to undermine government operations by taking control of the legislature, and more people could be arrested.
In a move that illustrated the expansive reach of the national security law, police visited the offices of three pro-democracy media outlets, Apple Daily, Stand News and InMedia, to demand information related to the poll. Apple Daily’s owner, 72-year-old Jimmy Lai, is facing life in prison after previously being charged with endangering national security.
Police said they would not take journalistic materials. Officers also searched 72 locations and froze HK$1.6 million ($206,000) in funds.
The legislation that enabled the purge is part of Beijing’s efforts to clamp down on the city’s opposition in the wake of the 2019 demonstrations that saw violent clashes between activists and police.
Some of the city’s most prominent activists, such as Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, had already been imprisoned over their roles in these protests. Fearing arrests, dozens have fled the city to the United States, Britain and Taiwan.
The Wednesday arrests decimated the ranks of the city’s opposition and ensnared even moderates.
The list of who was arrested is a who’s who of Hong Kong politics. It includes Alvin Yeung, former leader of Civic Party; Gwyneth Ho, a journalist-turned-activist; Roy Kwong, a novelist and former Democratic Party lawmaker; Lester Shum, a student leader of the 2014 Umbrella Movement; Leung Kwok-hung, a veteran pro-democracy activist nicknamed Long Hair; and Jimmy Sham, convener of Civil Human Rights Front and an organizer of the biggest protests in Hong Kong’s history. A total of 53 people were arrested, police said.
They participated in an unofficial election in July aiming to select the candidates who had the best chance of winning in a planned Legislative Council election in September, a process akin to the primary elections in democracies.
Legal scholar Benny Tai, a co-organizer of the poll, was also among the arrested. Tai had been jailed for 16 months for participating in the 2014 Occupy Central movement for freer elections, and was released on bail in 2019 pending an appeal.
Emily Lau, a former lawmaker who used to lead the city’s Democratic Party, called the arrests “scandalous and ridiculous.”
“I don’t see how people taking part in a civil election can be subverting the state. It is sort of like a reign of terror,” Lau told VICE World News.
Following the arrests, Senior Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah of the police’s national security department said the opposition camp primaries were different from similar elections held in other countries because the participants’ only goal was to “handicap” the government.
Li cited an article penned by Benny Tai in April 2020, in which Tai predicted that the opposition might be able to force Hong Kong’s leader to resign under a clause of the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, by taking control of the legislature.
“Lawmakers have the right to reject some bills, but their goal must not be to overthrow the government and the regime, and to disrupt their operations,” Li said.
Li said the investigation would not target the 610,000 people who voted in the primaries.
Antony Blinken, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for the Secretary of State, called the arrests “an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights” in a tweet, and said the Biden administration would stand against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.
The national security law, which went into effect in June, empowers the authorities to punish those deemed to have seriously disrupted the Hong Kong government.
At the time of the primaries, mainland officials called them an illegal act that would damage fair elections.
The pro-Beijing local administration of Carrie Lam later postponed the legislative elections, citing coronavirus concerns. But the opposition accused the government of trying to prevent a victory of the pro-democracy camp, which has consistently enjoyed popular support in the city of 7.4 million people since the 1997 handover.
Public opinion polls conducted during the 2019 unrest have shown that the pro-democracy camp continued to be backed by a majority.
The arrests amounted to the greatest blow to organized opposition to Beijing and its loyalists in the city since the national security legislation.
Albert Ho, a lawyer and former chairman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, called the police accusations “a joke” and said it did not look like an arguable case in court.
“It is a scare tactic. They want to scare people away from running in elections and participating in politics,” he said. “But many people will carry on, including myself.”
Yamini Mishra, Asia-Pacific regional director of Amnesty International, said in a statement that the “shocking crackdown” was “the starkest demonstration yet of how the national security law has been weaponized to punish anyone who dares to challenge the establishment.”
In November, all pro-democracy lawmakers tendered their resignations after the Hong Kong government expelled four democrats from the legislature for endangering national security. The move closed the last meaningful avenue for resistance to government policies within the established political process.
Joshua Wong, who participated in the primaries and is now serving a 13 months jail term, had his home searched by police in the morning, according to his official Facebook page.
Legal scholar Benny Tai, a co-organizer of the poll, was among the arrested on Wednesday. Tai had been jailed for 16 months for participating in the 2014 Occupy Central movement for freer elections, and was released on bail in 2019 pending an appeal.
American lawyer John Clancey, who serves as a treasurer of Power for Democracy, a group that co-organized the primaries, was also arrested, his colleague Jonathan Man told VICE World News.
In the morning, police searched the office of Ho Tse Wai & Partners, the law firm Clancey works for and which represents many opposition politicians. In 2013, lawyers at the firm aided the NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden’s exit to Moscow from Hong Kong.
Alan Wong, Junhyup Kwon, and Heather Chen contributed reporting.
Correction: A previous version of this story said the pollster Robert Chung was among those arrested on Wednesday. Police visited his home but he was not arrested. We regret the mistake.