In Dramatic Sweep, Police In Hong Kong Arrest Dozens Of Opposition Figures

Jan 6, 2021
Originally published on March 17, 2021 9:55 am

Updated 4:42 a.m.

In a predawn raid, Hong Kong police arrested more than 50 opposition lawmakers and activists for participating in an independent primary, the most sweeping use yet of a national security law Beijing imposed in the region last year.

Hong Kong's beleaguered opposition is still trying to ascertain who has been arrested. The region's police force declined to release a list of those detained Wednesday.

"All my friends and people I know are very busy trying to contact lawyers, trying to contact other civic groups to check on whether everybody is safe and which police station the arrested are," said Joey Siu, a student activist leader.

Siu said Wednesday's arrests are a complete round up of the region's remaining opposition: "The 50 activists arrested this morning are very important and vocal voices in Hong Kong right now."

Samuel Chu, a leader of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, an activist organization based in Washington, D.C., said the arrests send the signal that "if you want to win an election, you are subverting the state's power."

In July, more than 600,000 Hong Kong residents voted in the non-binding primary, convened by opposition political parties, in preparation for legislative elections that were eventually postponed by the region's pro-Beijing government. The legislature is historically dominated by pro-Beijing factions, but opposition parties had aspired to work together more closely to win a majority for the first time.

"Now, the government's claiming this [plan] is some kind of a violation... of national security," said Michael Davis, a legal scholar who teaches at the University of Hong Kong. "A primary is now being turned into a crime where the minimum sentence is three years and the maximum is life in prison."

Hong Kong's defense chief, John Lee, defended the arrests, saying those targeted had intended to "paralyze the Hong Kong government".

"The operation today targets the active elements who are suspected of... overthrowing or interfering, serious[ly] destroying the Hong Kong government's legal execution of duties," said Lee in Hong Kong's legislature.

Previously, police had made about 40 arrests under the national security law, passed last June, but had charged only four people.

The arrests on Wednesday targeted a wide range of people involved in the primary. Benny Tai, a prominent academic who first came up with the idea of holding the primary, was targeted as part of the sweep. John Clancey, a lawyer and American citizen, was also arrested. He currently serves as the treasurer for Power of Democracy, an opposition political party that helped organize the primary, which officials say is subversive.

Also among those arrested are at least ten former opposition lawmakers. All had earlier resigned as a gesture of protest last year, after Beijing unilaterally disqualified four legislative members.

Hong Kong police also searched the offices of three pro-democratic media outlets – InMedia, StandNews and Apple Daily – for documents regarding the more than seventy candidates who had run in July's independent primary.

This is the second time police have combed Apple Daily's office, which was also searched in August, after Hong Kong arrested its chairman, Jimmy Lai. Lai, an outspoken critic of Beijing is currently standing trial for violating the national security law by colluding with foreign forces.

The home of activist Joshua Wong was also searched by police in relation to his participation in the primary, according to allies posting through his Twitter account. Wong is currently serving more than a year in prison for organizing a protest, but could now face a longer sentence.

American officials condemned the wave of arrests.

"The sweeping arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators are 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," Antony Blinken, the incoming secretary of state under the Biden administration wrote on Twitter.

"In response to Hong Kong's political crackdown, I urge the European Parliament to halt the EU-China investment deal and EU to sanction China and Hong Kong officials who are responsible to the arrests," tweeted Nathan Law, a Hong Kong activist who went into self-imposed exile last year.

Law is referring to an investment deal European politicians recently concluded negotiations with China on but have yet to ratify. The deal has already come under criticism for its opacity and for weak commitments from China to improve its human rights record.

Meanwhile, anyone tangentially associated with Hong Kong's opposition is in danger, says Tommy Cheung, a young leader in 2014's Umbrella Revolution protests in Hong Kong who is now a local politician.

"The national security law is a powerful law. No one will say they won't be arrested anymore," he said.

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Today, we're learning another way that China is using a national security law that it imposed last year on Hong Kong. China promised that law would be used in a way that preserved Hong Kong's limited autonomy. But today, police used the law to arrest more than 50 activists and lawmakers. Their alleged crime was participating in an independent election primary. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: All across Hong Kong in the predawn hours, dozens of activists and lawmakers woke up to scenes like this one.


NG KIN-WAI: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: These are Hong Kong police officers outside lawmaker Ng Kin-wai's door earlier today. In Ng's case, he lets the police in. They arrest him under a sweeping new national security law imposed last summer.


UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

KIN-WAI: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: The police tell the lawmaker he subverted state power by participating in a primary to, quote, "force Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam to resign." The police are referring to a primary election opposition politicians held in July. Michael Davis, a legal scholar who teaches in Hong Kong, explains the opposition wanted to find the most popular candidates to run for Hong Kong's 70-person legislature. Historically, that legislature is pro-Beijing.

MICHAEL DAVIS: The goal was to get 35 seats and then have the power to block whatever the government's agenda is. Now, the government's claiming, well, this is some kind of a violation, offense against the government and national security.

FENG: Six-hundred thousand Hong Kong residents came out and voted in July's primary despite threats from pro-Beijing officials in Hong Kong. Beijing, which controls Hong Kong, is sending a clear message.

DAVIS: A primary in this kind of plan is now being turned into a crime where the sentence, the minimum sentence, is three years. And the maximum is life in prison.

FENG: The arrests target a wide range of people involved in the primary, including 10 former lawmakers. Benny Tai, a prominent academic who first came up with the idea of the primary, was taken. A U.S. citizen, lawyer John Clancey, was also arrested. He's the treasurer for a political party that helped organize the primary, which officials say is subversive. Joey Siu, a Hong Kong student leader, says this is a complete roundup of the region's remaining opposition.

JOEY SIU: So the 50 activists arrested this morning are very, very important and vocal voices in Hong Kong right now.

FENG: The opposition says their ability to participate in Hong Kong politics is now illegal.

SAMUEL CHU: Essentially, what the arrests today means is that if you want to win an election, you are subverting the state's power.

FENG: This is Samuel Chu, a Hong Kong democracy activist now living in the U.S.

CHU: There were 600,000 Hong Kongers that voted in the primaries. So we're not talking about sort of this little gathering that a few people attended. We're talking about a public event.

FENG: This means anyone who was ever tangentially involved with Hong Kong's beleaguered opposition is in danger, says Tommy Cheung. He was a young leader in 2014's umbrella revolution protests in Hong Kong and is now a local politician.

TOMMY CHEUNG: You know, the national security law is powerful law in Hong Kong. No one would say they would not be arrested anymore.

FENG: No one can say they won't be arrested, meaning expect more arrests.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.