Hong Kong (AFP) – Hong Kong police arrested nearly 50 former lawmakers and pro-democracy activists on Wednesday for allegedly violating a new national security law by participating in the informal primaries for the provincial legislature last year.
The mass arrests, which included former lawmakers, were the biggest move against the democratic movement in Hong Kong since Beijing imposed the law to quell dissent in the semi-autonomous region last June.
In a video clip that former Rep. Lam Chuck Ting posted on his Facebook page, police came to his home and told him he was “suspected of violating the National Security Act and undermining state authority.” The police asked those who recorded the video to stop or risk arrest.
Police did not immediately comment on the arrests, the South China Morning Post, the online platform Now News and various groups and political figures, reported.
At least seven members of the Hong Kong Democratic Party – the largest opposition party in the city – were arrested, including former party chairman Wu Zhi Wai. Former lawmakers Lam, Helena Wong and James Two have also been arrested, according to a post on the party’s Facebook page.
Benny Tai, a key figure in the 2014 Hong Kong protests and a former law professor, has been arrested by police, according to local media reports. Tai was one of the main organizers of the primaries, which were held last July with the aim of introducing enough pro-democracy candidates in the legislative elections to dominate the assembly.
All pro-democracy candidates were arrested in those unofficial primaries, according to the detention statistics reported on Wednesday.
The home of Joshua Wong, a prominent pro-democracy activist who is serving a 13 and a half months in prison for organizing and participating in an unauthorized protest last year, was also raided, according to a tweet posted from Wong’s account.
Police also went to Stand News, a prominent pro-democracy online news site in Hong Kong, with a court order to hand over documents to aid an investigation into national security law, according to a live video of Stand News. . No arrests were made.
In recent months, Hong Kong has already imprisoned several pro-democracy activists including Wong and Agnes Chau for participating in anti-government protests, and charges have been brought against others under the National Security Act including media mogul and pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai.
The Security Law criminalizes acts of sabotage, separatism, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers to interfere in the city’s affairs. Serious violators may face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
The unofficial primaries held in July last year attracted more than 600,000 voters even though pro-Beijing lawmakers and politicians warned that the event could breach the security law. Pro-democracy figures hoped to use the vote to build support and win a majority of seats in the Legislative Council, which could be used to vote against bills they deemed pro-Beijing, freeze budgets and paralyze the government.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam had said at the time that if the primaries were to resist every political initiative on the part of the Hong Kong government, they might fall under the power of the subversive state, a crime under the National Security Act.
Beijing also criticized the primaries, describing them as a “dangerous provocation” to the electoral system in Hong Kong.
After the British handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the semi-autonomous Chinese city worked on the framework of a “one country, two systems” that provided it with freedoms not found on the mainland. In recent years, Beijing has imposed more control over the city, prompting criticism that Hong Kong’s freedoms are under attack.
The legislative elections, which had been scheduled for September, were later postponed for a year. Lam referred to the health risks of the coronavirus pandemic, although the pro-democracy camp denounced the delay and called it unconstitutional.
In November, all of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy lawmakers resigned en masse after disqualifying four of them, leaving a largely pro-Beijing legislature.
The mass arrests sparked condemnation from Anthony Blinken, the nominee for the US Secretary of State for the incoming Biden administration, who said on Twitter that it was “an attack on those who bravely defend universal rights.”
Blinken tweeted, “The Biden Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”
The arrests indicate that Beijing has failed to learn from its mistakes in Hong Kong that repression breeds resistance, according to a statement issued by Human Rights Watch’s chief researcher in China, Maya Wang.
“Millions of Hong Kong residents will continue to fight for their right to vote and run for office in a democratically elected government,” she said.
In other remarks to the AP, Wang said it was not clear what provisions of the law were cited to justify the arrests, but local authorities seemed less concerned with the legal substance.
“The nature of the National Security Law is a comprehensive and draconian law that allows the government to detain and possibly imprison people for long periods of time for exercising their constitutionally protected rights,” said Wang.
“The outer shell of the rule of law is also applied in mainland China, devoid of any meaning. Hong Kong looks like mainland China, but it is difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins.”