The Chinese proxy government in Hong Kong arrested 53 pro-democracy activists and politicians in raids accusing them of trying to ‘overthrow’ in city’s government.
The arrests were made under the controversial new security law, were involved in an unofficial “primary” vote to select opposition candidates ahead of postponed 2020 elections.
Hong Kong’s security secretary has said their actions were “subversive”.
About 1,000 police took part in the raids at 73 premises, including searches of the offices of a pollster and a law firm.
The arrests formed part of the largest crackdown since the law’s introduction.
Beijing imposed the legislation on the semi-autonomous territory in June, saying it was necessary to curb months of sometimes violent pro-democracy protests.
China’s government defended the arrests. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said they were needed to stop “external forces and individuals [colluding] to undermine China’s stability and security”.
But the crackdown on Wednesday appeared to confirm the fears of many who warned about the reach of the law, with Amnesty International saying the arrests are “the starkest demonstration yet of how the national security law has been weaponised to punish anyone who dares to challenge the establishment”.
Police did not name those arrested, but their identities were revealed by their social media accounts and their organisations. They included former lawmakers, activists and people involved in organising the 2020 primary, among them James To, Lam Cheuk-ting, Benny Tai and Lester Shum.
Police said campaigning 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.
The city’s leader is not directly elected and only half the legislative seats are open to democratic vote, with the other half stacked mostly with pro-Beijing figures.
“The people involved are suspected of making use of what they call a ‘35+’ plan … to somehow paralyse the Hong Kong government,” Lee said, adding the government would not tolerate any “subversive acts”.
Police cited a rule that if the legislature fails to pass the annual budget twice, the city’s chief executive must step down. The national security law prohibits disrupting and interfering with the city’s administration.
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.