In an unprecedented crackdown against Hong Kong‘s pro-democracy camp, China rounded up 53 elected pro-democracy officials and activists early Wednesday for their participation in an unofficial primary election for the territory’s legislature last year.
The mass arrest is the biggest sweep of the opposition leaders under the new national security law imposed by Beijing to stamp out dissent in the semiautonomous territory. The Hong Kong security secretary, Josh Lee, regarded by the pro-democracy proponents as China’s lackey, defended the crackdown stating that the actions of the leaders and activists were subverting the city’s government.
“The operation today targets the active elements who are believed to be involved in the crime of overthrowing, or interfering (and) seriously destroy the Hong Kong government’s legal execution of duties,” said John Lee, Hong Kong’s security minister, in a news conference.
On Wednesday morning, a legion of 1,000 national security forces was deployed as a part of Beijing’s sweeping clampdown on Hong Kong’s opposition figures. About 53 people were arrested, including an American lawyer John Clancey, who served as treasurer for a group that helped organise the informal primary elections and also searched the premises of law firm Ho Tse Wai & Partners.
Besides, the police also raided the house of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy supporter Joshua Wong, claiming that the activist had participated in the primaries. Mr Wong is serving a 13-months jail sentence in connection with his role in the 2019 Hong Kong protests, an accusation not linked with the new national security law forcibly passed by China in June last year.
The legislative election that would have followed the unofficial primaries was postponed by a year by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who cited the public health risks during the coronavirus pandemic. Mass resignations and disqualifications of pro-democracy lawmakers have left the legislature largely a pro-Beijing body.
National Security Law provides unbridled powers to China to undermine opposition and suppress pro-democracy forces
With the recent arrests, the Chinese government has escalated its efforts in weakening the opposition in Hong Kong and eliminating their presence from the governmental institutions. However, this is not the first time that China has used the whip of the national security law to quell the opposition.
Last year, the government disqualified pro-democracy lawmakers from running in September election in the Legislative Council. Subsequently, the legislative council elections were postponed by a year by Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam citing coronavirus concerns. But, many in the pro-democracy camp claimed that the officials were trying to avert an embarrassing loss for the pro-Beijing legislators.
A few months later, in November, the Hong Kong government disqualified another four pro-democracy legislators, who it said had advocated or had been insufficiently critical of the US sanctions on the city.
Media mogul Jimmy Lai and pro-democracy activists hauled up by Hong Kong authorities under the NSL
Ever since China passed the sweeping national security law in Hong Kong, effectively ending its autonomy, it has sought to use the statute of the law to command total obedience. In December 2020, media mogul Jimmy Lai was charged with foreign collusion offences and endangering national security under the draconian national security law (NSL). The owner of Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily, Lai has been one of the most fierce pro-democratic voices in Hong Kong.
The move came a week after the Hong Kong authorities jailed activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, and Ivan Lam with the sentence between for 7 to 13 months for their roles in an unauthorised protest outside police headquarters last year. A total of 16 pro-democracy activists, including students involved in a peaceful campus demonstration, had been arrested by the authorities.
A few days ago, on December 29, Hong Kong student activist Tony Chung was sentenced to four months in prison for insulting the Chinese flag during a protest in May last year. The 19-year-old activist was guilty of unlawful assembly and defiling the Chinese flag under the national security law after he was filmed throwing the flag to the ground during scuffles outside Hong Kong’s parliament in 2019.