Hong Kong police arrested dozens of democracy activists on Wednesday on suspicion of violating a new security law by planning to “paralyse” and “overthrow” the city government, Secretary for Security John Lee said.
The arrests represent the biggest crackdown on the opposition camp since Beijing imposed the law security law in the former British colony last year.
Lee told reporters the group planned to cause “serious damage” to society and that authorities would not tolerate any subversive acts.
The dawn swoop on many of the most prominent pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong was linked to an unofficial, independently organised vote last July to select opposition candidates for a since-postponed legislative election.
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 media.
The 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 promised when the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, places China further on a collision course with the United States just as Joe Biden prepares to take over the presidency.
Hong Kong was promised a high degree of autonomy unavailable elsewhere in China when it returned to Beijing rule under a “one country, two systems” agreement.
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,” he said.
Media reported more than 50 arrests including former lawmakers, activists and people involved in organising the 2020 primary, among them James To, Lam Cheuk-ting, Benny Tai and Lester Shum.
At the time, the city 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.
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”.
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 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 defences exposed by months of sometimes violent anti-government and anti-China protests that rocked the global financial hub in 2019.
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.”
Taiwan’s government said it was “shocked” at the arrests, adding Hong Kong has changed from the “pearl of the orient” to “purgatory of the orient”.
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 organising and inciting an unlawful assembly during the 2019 anti-government protests.