But protesters did not appear shaken.
Authorities banned a march planned for Saturday and warned they would use force and possibly arrest those who ignore the order. Still, demonstrators are expected to return to the streets in a direct challenge to authorities.
The arrests Friday included Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, who rose to eminence as the student leaders of pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014.
More than a dozen people were arrested since Thursday. Among them were Andy Chan, the leader of a banned pro-independence party, and pro-democracy lawmakers and local representatives.
Police said Wong and Chow face charges of participating in an unauthorized assembly and inciting others to participate in an unapproved assembly, while Wong faces an additional charge of organizing an unapproved assembly, in relation to a June 21 protest at police headquarters. Both were released on bail Friday.
The sweep came ahead of a sensitive political anniversary in the semiautonomous Chinese territory. This Saturday marks five years since Beijing announced an electoral-reform plan that denied Hong Kong free elections — a decision that triggered 79 days of pro-democracy protests.
The latest protests were sparked by a now-shelved government proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China. But the demonstrations have broadened into a battle over the extent of Beijing’s control over the former British colony.
Protesters fear Beijing’s leaders could increasingly undercut the special freedoms and status granted to Hong Kong under the deal that returned the territory in 1997.
Patrick Kwok, chief superintendent of the police’s public relations branch, told a news conference Friday that the timing of the arrests and the anniversary of the 2014 demonstrations were “not correlated.”
The dissent coincides with a delicate period for the ruling Communist Party, as the clock ticks down to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October. China’s government has issued increasingly strident threats in an effort to quell the unrest. A day earlier, China sent a new batch of troops to Hong Kong to reinforce the People’s Liberation Army garrison in the city.
Friday’s arrests, combined with the garrison rotation and rumors that Hong Kong may invoke emergency laws, were “extremely alarming,” said Samantha Hoffman, a fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute who studies Chinese politics.
“At the very least, it is clear that Beijing is attempting to intimidate the people of Hong Kong. The Chinese Communist Party places political protests very high on its list of threat perceptions,” she said.
“The party will protect itself before it defends the objective interests of China, the Chinese people, and Hong Kong and its people. Therefore, it is hard to imagine a solution where the party backs down in any meaningful way.”
In a report after the roundup of the Hong Kong activists, China’s official Xinhua news agency said more arrests were expected. Hours later, Xinhua posted a picture on its social media account with a pair of handcuffs and images of Wong, Chow and Chan with the caption, “What goes around comes around.”
Police have arrested more than 800 people in connection with protests that have rocked the city since June, some of them on riot charges that can attract a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
After his release on bail, Wong was defiant. “We will continue our fight no matter how they arrest and prosecute us,” he told reporters.
Man-Kei Tam, director of Amnesty International in Hong Kong, said the wave of arrests and the banning of the march appeared to be “straight out of Beijing’s playbook.”
Wong, 22, became known as the face of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, a street occupation aimed at securing universal suffrage for Hong Kong. He was charged and sentenced several times in connection with those protests, and he served three stints in jail. Most recently, on May 16, Wong was sentenced to two months in prison after losing an appeal against a prison term for contempt of court. He was released in June.
Along with Chow and another activist, Nathan Law, Wong went on to found the political group Demosisto, which advocates self-determination for Hong Kong. The three were arrested in 2017 ahead of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s visit to the city.
This time, the protest movement in Hong Kong has taken a leaderless form — in part to avoid arrests and detentions that plagued its leaders in the past, and to empower a broader base of participants. Unlike in 2014, members of Demosistō have not delivered speeches at rallies, nor have they been prominent faces on the front lines, but have used the group’s social media presence to promote their cause globally.
“We’ll use our influence and connections with the international community to tell the world about what’s happening,” Chow said in an earlier interview with The Washington Post. “It’s still very important.”
On Friday, Wong was seized at roughly 7:30 a.m. “when he was suddenly pushed into a private car on the street,” Demosistō said. Chow was arrested a short time later at her home, Demosistō added. Both are being held in the Hong Kong police headquarters in the Wan Chai district.
The group has sought help from its lawyers.
Wong and Chow were due to travel to Washington next month, where they were to meet with lawmakers and participate in a congressional Executive Committee on China hearing on the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. The bill, which has bipartisan support, including from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), seeks to punish those who suppress freedoms in Hong Kong, including through the use of sanctions and visa bans to the United States.
Chan, who founded a party that advocates for Hong Kong independence, was also arrested in August on suspicion of possessing offensive weapons and bombmaking materials.
Hong Kong operates under a “one country, two systems” arrangement within China, under which the city is supposed to enjoy a high degree of autonomy for 50 years following its return to Chinese rule in 1997. Concerns have grown, though, that Beijing is tightening control over the territory and eroding the freedoms and autonomy that distinguish Hong Kong from mainland China.
President Xi said in a 2017 speech that he viewed any efforts to endanger Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong or challenge the authority of Beijing as a “red line.”
In a tweet the night before his arrest, Wong wrote that “Being born in uncertain times carries certain responsibilities.” He linked to a website outlining protesters’ demands.
Shih reported from Beijing. Anna Kam in Hong Kong contributed to this report.