• The Star Staff

Hong Kong police arrest dozens of pro-democracy leaders

By Vivian Wang, Austin Ramzy and Tiffany May

The Hong Kong police arrested 53 elected pro-democracy officials and activists early Wednesday for their involvement in an informal primary election, the largest roundup yet under the new national security law imposed by Beijing to quash dissent.

The mass arrests — which included figures who had called for aggressive confrontation with the authorities as well as those who had supported more moderate tactics — underscored Hong Kong officials’ efforts to weaken any meaningful opposition in the city’s political institutions. The police also visited the offices of at least one law firm and three news organizations to demand documents, broadening the burst of arrests that started before sunrise and sent a chill through Hong Kong’s already-demoralized opposition camp.

The moves suggested that the authorities were casting a wide net for anyone who had played a prominent role in opposing the government. The national security law, which the Chinese government imposed in June, has been wielded as a powerful tool to crack down on the fierce anti-Beijing protests that upended the city for months. Since then, the Hong Kong authorities have detained pro-democracy leaders, raided news media offices and ousted opposition lawmakers.

Li Kwai-wah, a senior police superintendent, said at a news conference Wednesday that about 1,000 police officers had arrested 53 people under the national security law in relation to the primary, including six organizers and 47 participants. They also searched 72 places and froze more than $200,000 in funds related to the effort.

Among those detained were activists, at least 13 former Legislative Council members, a former law professor, an American lawyer who has been involved in the pro-democracy movement and a number of district councilors, a hyperlocal elected position dominated by opposition figures. Before the latest roundup, the police arrested dozens of people under the national security law, including Jimmy Lai, the media mogul and founder of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper.

“This is a total sweep of all opposition leaders,” said Victoria Hui, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame who studies Hong Kong. If running for office and trying to win election are considered subversion, she added, then the security law “is aimed at the total subjugation of Hong Kong people.”

“There should be no expectation of elections in any sense that we know it if and when elections are held in the future,” Hui said.

With the latest arrest, the government has sharpened its focus on eliminating opposition within the city’s political institutions. Last summer, the government disqualified several pro-democracy candidates from running in the September election for the Legislative Council. Then it postponed the election altogether, citing coronavirus concerns. Many democracy supporters accused officials of trying to prevent an embarrassing loss for the pro-Beijing camp.

A few months later, in November, the government disqualified four pro-democracy incumbents who it said had supported or had been inadequately critical of U.S. sanctions on the city; the remaining opposition members resigned in protest.

The arrests Wednesday heightened the possibility that many of Hong Kong’s best-known pro-democracy politicians would not be able to run in the rescheduled elections this fall, either because they could be in prison or because their arrests would give officials reasons to disqualify them.

John Lee, Hong Kong’s secretary for security, said that the arrested activists, if elected, would have tried to paralyze Hong Kong’s government and lead the city into a “bottomless abyss.”

“That is why police action today is necessary,” he said at a news conference Wednesday.

The Chinese government applauded the Hong Kong authorities Wednesday. Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong’s people had not been affected by the arrests.

The Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government, Beijing’s official arm in Hong Kong, singled out the arrest of Benny Tai, a former law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Officials have accused Tai, who was fired for his role in previous pro-democracy protests, of masterminding the primary election.

“We believe that the public can clearly see the evil intentions of Tai Yiu-ting and others and the danger they posed to Hong Kong society,” the office said in a statement, referring to Tai by his Chinese name.

The primary, which was held in July, was organized by the pro-democracy camp in an effort to pare down the number of candidates in the September election. Dozens of opposition candidates had expressed interest in running despite a voting system that gives significant advantages to establishment candidates. The pro-democracy camp, which had a long shot of winning a majority, had wanted to try to ride the momentum created by the landslide defeat of establishment candidates in the 2019 district council elections.

If they had managed to win, many of the opposition candidates said, they planned to use that majority to block the government’s agenda, including vetoing the annual budget. If the budget is vetoed twice, the chief executive would be forced under Hong Kong law to step down.

Government officials had warned that such a plan could be considered subversion under the national security law. “It is wrong to seriously interfere, disrupt or undermine the performance of duties and functions by the central or local governments,” Erick Tsang, Hong Kong’s constitutional affairs minister, said in an interview with pro-Beijing media in July.

Still, more than 600,000 Hong Kongers voted in the primary, largely selecting newer candidates who favored a more aggressive approach toward the government rather than more familiar moderate faces. Some of the activists arrested Wednesday were among the more outspoken winners.

One of them, Ng Kin Wai, won a seat on the district council in the 2019 sweep by pro-democracy supporters. In a Facebook Live video streamed by Ng as the police arrived at his door shortly before 7 a.m., he fumbled to put on a jacket and turn on the light. An officer could be heard saying that he was arresting Ng on suspicion of “subversion of state power.” The officer said he had “reason to believe” that Ng had participated in the primary in order to win office and ultimately “force Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resign.”

Ng was then escorted to his office, which he shares with other district councilors, according to another livestream later posted on his Facebook page. As officers rifled through cubicles, they demanded that employees stop filming.

The arrests extended beyond candidates. The police detained John Clancey, an American lawyer who served as treasurer for a group that helped organize the primaries, and they searched the offices of the firm where he worked, said Jonathan Man, another lawyer at the firm.

Asked by a local reporter if he had any message for Hong Kongers as he was escorted into a police car, Clancey, who was walking with a cane, said, “Continue to work for human rights and democracy in Hong Kong.”

Police officers also delivered court orders requesting documents to Stand News, Apple Daily and InMedia HK — all news organizations seen as supportive of the protest movement. Last year, they raided the offices of Apple Daily, heightening fears of a crackdown on Hong Kong’s independent media outlets.

The arrests prompted swift condemnation from government officials overseas and human rights groups.

Antony Blinken, President-elect Joe Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, wrote on Twitter that the arrests were “an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights.” He said the incoming administration would stand with Hong Kong against Beijing’s crackdown.

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