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Last week, authorities in Hong Kong arrested 55 people in the largest crackdown on pro-democracy activists since Beijing imposed a new national security law on the region over the summer. Hong Kong police arrested organizers and candidates involved in the pro-democracy camp’s election primaries last July, accusing them of subversion.
The mass arrests, beginning last Wednesday, signal the Chinese regime’s attempt to snuff out pro-democratic forces in Hong Kong. In a statement, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the arrests an “outrage” and threatened sanctions against the officials involved.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is finding less room for resistance against the regime. Authorities are casting a wide net for dissidents: Last week’s round-up included both prominent politicians and candidates running for office for the first time. Moreover, a digital clampdown on the city has begun, as police seized devices from arrestees for data collection and officials blocked access to an anti-government website, reported The Washington Post.
Around 1,000 police officers were involved in last week’s arrests. They searched dozens of locations—including a public opinion research center that set up a website and app for the July primary election—and asked three pro-democracy media outlets to hand over information regarding the election. Police also froze $206,000 in funds connected with the primaries.
The primaries, which were unofficial and not endorsed by the government, were for the legislative election originally scheduled for September 2020. Pro-democracy candidates ran with the goal of claiming a majority in the 70-seat Hong Kong legislature that is now dominated by Beijing loyalists. Some participants had vowed, if elected, to veto the government’s annual budget, which would force Carrie Lam out from her position as chief executive. Over 600,000 citizens voted in the July primaries.
Authorities called the activists’ plan to veto the budget and oust Lam an act of subversion. Hong Kong Secretary for Security John Lee said the arrestees aimed to “paralyze” the government and plunge Hong Kong into an “abyss.” (The mass arrests also included those who did not agree to vetoing the budget.)
Under the national security law that criminalizes subversion, secession, terrorism, and foreign collusion, offenders could face up to life in prison.
In July, Lam postponed the legislative election by one year, claiming pandemic concerns. The current legislature is devoid of pro-democracy members, as Beijing disqualified opposition lawmakers in November, triggering mass resignations in protest.
Among those arrested last week: former lawmakers, incumbent district councilors, and an American lawyer. Benny Tai, an organizer of the primaries and co-organizer of the 2014 Occupy Central protests, was also arrested. Activist Joshua Wong, currently serving a 13½-month prison sentence for unlawful assembly, was transferred to a detention center for questioning.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state was among those condemning the arrests last Wednesday. “The sweeping arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators are an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights,” tweeted Antony Blinken. “The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”
By last Thursday evening, all arrestees had been released on bail, except for three, including Joshua Wong, who remain detained for other violations. One arrestee, former lawmaker Helena Wong, told media that authorities were trying to intimidate the Hong Kong people and discourage pro-democracy candidates from running in the upcoming legislative election, scheduled for September.
Referring to the political suppression, Benny Tai told media on Thursday, “Hong Kong has entered a chilly winter. The wind is blowing strong and cold, but I believe there are still many Hong Kongers who will use their own ways to continue walking against the wind.”
Members of the Democratic Party, the city’s largest opposition party, said at a press conference on Friday they remain committed to the pro-democracy ideology, but haven’t yet laid out plans for next moves.
Several Hong Kong activists, exiled in the United Kingdom, have called on foreign governments to halt investment deals with China and sanction officials responsible for the arrests. In a Washington Post op-ed, Nathan Law, an exiled former lawmaker, urged the international community to take a more proactive stance against the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party: “Constraining the CCP’s expansion should be a priority of all of the free world.”