The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Dozens of Hong Kong democracy activists arrested under national security law

Pro-democracy activists rally from a vehicle to call for the release of political prisoners outside Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre in Hong Kong on Jan. 1, 2021. (Lam Yik/Reuters)

HONG KONG — Dozens of Hong Kong residents, including pro-democracy activists, lawmakers, a pollster and a lawyer, were arrested Wednesday under the national security law, in an early morning sweep that marked the most far-reaching and chilling use of the Beijing-imposed law since it was passed in June.

More than 41 were detained, many taken from their homes by plainclothes officers, according to a Washington Post tally of social media posts from those apprehended and updates from political parties and other activists. The number accused of subversion, a crime punishable by life in prison, could be higher than 50, local media reports suggested.

‘Total submission’: With mass arrests, China neutralizes Hong Kong democracy movement

A spokeswoman for the Hong Kong police said they could not immediately provide information on the arrests.

Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, one of the main opposition parties whose members recently resigned en masse from the legislature over the ouster of their pro-democracy colleagues, said their alleged crime was participation in an informal election in July. The election was a primary for pro-democracy candidates, a contest to determine who would run in legislative elections scheduled for September. More than ­600,000 people took part in the primary, which saw the rise of a younger generation of political leaders, including Joshua Wong, who won in his district. Wong, who is serving a prison sentence, also was charged with the others on Wednesday.

The legislative council elections were subsequently canceled by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, citing the pandemic.

According to local media, Robert Chung, an academic who runs public opinion polls that helped facilitate the primary, also was arrested.

The arrests are reminiscent of the shock-and-awe tactics used to round up critics of the Chinese Communist Party at other times in history and indicate that Beijing will not hold back from using the national security law or other tools to neutralize Hong Kong’s political identity and quash all dissent. Hong Kong, which was promised autonomy, preservation of its freedoms and basic rights until at least 2047, has seen a reconfiguration of its major institutions over the past year, including the media, schools and the legislature, which is now devoid of opposition.

The security law, passed the day before the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to the mainland last year, has been used to punish several others, including billionaire media tycoon Jimmy Lai. The law was passed by Beijing and imposed on Hong Kong, skipping the city’s usual political processes, and punishes broadly worded crimes such as “secession,” “terrorism,” “collusion with foreign forces” and “subversion” with up to life in prison. At the time the law was passed, authorities promised it would be used selectively, against a very small group of people.

Several arrested and charged under the law have been denied bail, meaning the pro-democracy activists arrested Wednesday could be held indefinitely until formal hearings, which could take weeks.