Pro-democracy activists march to the venue where an elite election commission was set to pick Hong Kong’s new chief executive on Sunday. (Jayne Russell/AFP/Getty Images)

Hong Kong police arrested nine leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy campaign on Monday and charged them with violating public order, protest leaders said — just a day after a new chief executive who has pledged to “unite society” was chosen for the semiautonomous territory. 

If convicted, the activists face many years in prison.

On Sunday, an elite election commission dominated by Beijing loyalists picked Carrie Lam, a career civil servant, as Hong Kong’s new chief executive, though opinion polls showed she was not the most popular candidate.

There is mounting frustration in the former British colony, where tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters rallied for weeks in late 2014 as part of the “Umbrella Movement.” Authorities, however, refused to make any political concessions.

Lam vowed Sunday to “heal the divide and ease the frustration,” as well as protect Hong Kong’s core values, such as freedom of the press and of speech, respect for human rights and the independence of its judiciary.

Yet, less than 24 hours later, several students, lawmakers and academics who took part in the 2014 pro-democracy campaign, also known as Occupy Central, said they had received phone calls from police informing them that they faced criminal charges.

“The timing is obviously deliberate,” said Chan Kinman, a sociology professor who was a leader of the movement and who reported to police Monday evening with the eight other activists. The activists were later released on bail.

Chan said he faces charges of conspiracy to commit a public nuisance, incitement to commit a public nuisance and incitement to incite a public nuisance, each of which carries a prison term of up to seven years. The other eight activists face some or all of the same charges as Chan.

He said the authorities apparently delayed the arrests to avoid a public backlash that might have upset Lam’s chances of being chosen by the 1,200-member election commission.

“Carrie Lam said her government’s first mission is to mend cleavages in society and to create a dialogue, but now with this action, I don’t see how the government can create a dialogue with the opposition,” Chan said in an interview.

“People were very frustrated yesterday when the most popular candidate wasn’t chosen and the people’s will was not respected by Beijing,” he said. “It seems the authorities want to send a signal they will continue their hard-line approach to civil society and the opposition.”

The Hong Kong chief executive’s role is a tough balancing act, with demands from the central government in Beijing often at odds with the wishes of the city’s 7.3 million people. But there are already doubts about Lam’s ability to balance those demands: She is believed to have been strongly backed by Beijing, and Chinese state media welcomed her “election.”

Under the terms of the 1997 handover from British rule, China vowed to grant Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” model, but critics say it has not fully kept that promise — for example, when booksellers from the territory were spirited out of Hong Kong in 2015 to face detention and interrogation on the mainland.

The pro-democracy demonstrations began in September 2014 with a sit-in in central Hong Kong. The protesters used umbrellas to defend against tear gas used by police, leading the campaign to be nicknamed the Umbrella Movement or the Umbrella Revolution.

The protests were initially peaceful but subsequently marred by periodic scuffles with police.

Lam served as chief secretary — effectively the second most powerful role in the city’s administration — during the protests, before standing down in January to compete in the chief executive’s race. She is due to take over July 1. She said she did not have any advance knowledge of the decision to arrest and charge the nine activists.

“Prosecution actions are undertaken independently by the Department of Justice, under the Basic Law,” she said at a news conference Monday, referring to the territory’s mini-constitution.

“I made it very clear that I want to unite society and bridge the divide that has been causing us concern,” she said, according to local media. “But all these actions should not compromise the rule of law in Hong Kong.” 

Also facing charges are the two other founders of the Occupy Central movement — University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai and the Rev. Chu Yiu-ming — as well as six student leaders and legislators who played key roles in the movement, protest leaders said.

“If the offense is in line with the facts, I am prepared to plead guilty,” Tai said on emerging from a police station, according to local media.

Joshua Wong, one of the most recognizable figures in the student movement, is not among those charged. But he said the authorities’ decision proves that Lam is taking a hard-line approach that will only further “polarize society.”

Mabel Au, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, said the charges were “a blow to the rights of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly” in the territory, adding that the timing raised questions about whether “political maneuverings” were a factor.

“This vindictiveness shows contempt for well-established freedoms in Hong Kong and will only lead to more political tensions,” she said in a statement.