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Hong Kong arrests over 50 democracy activists in an unprecedented crackdown

A sign China is stepping up its national security law to crush Hong Kong’s civil society.

Chair of the Civic Party Alan Leong (front third right) and other members shout slogans as they hold a press conference at the party headquarters in Hong Kong on January 6, 2021, following the arrest of dozens of opposition figures under the national security law.
Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

More than 50 pro-democracy and civil society leaders in Hong Kong have been arrested under China’s national security law, an unprecedented crackdown as Beijing tries to throttle Hong Kong’s remaining freedoms.

Raids took place across Hong Kong in the early morning hours Wednesday, an operation that involved more than 1,000 police officers. A total of 53 opposition figures and activists were detained for their involvement with unofficial primary elections that were held in July for pro-democracy candidates, intended to select the slate of contenders for the since-postponed legislative elections.

Those primaries took place shortly after China passed an aggressive new national security law, a sweeping piece of legislation that gave Beijing broad powers to stamp out dissent in Hong Kong. Now, due to their association with that election, these pro-democracy leaders are being accused of subverting the Chinese state.

The mass arrests were the clearest sign yet that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under President Xi Jinping is determined to stamp out political opposition in Hong Kong, following nearly a year of pro-democracy protests there.

In 1997, Britain, which had controlled Hong Kong, handed the territory back to China. Under the terms of that agreement, Hong Kong is supposed to be governed according to a “one country, two systems” rule. The “one country” part means it is officially part of China, while the “two systems” part gives it a degree of autonomy, including rights like freedom of the press that are absent in mainland China.

China is supposed to abide by this arrangement until 2047, but it has for years been eroding those freedoms and trying to bring Hong Kong more tightly under its control.

And the national security law passed in July effectively killed even the veneer of “one country, two systems.” China has wielded the law to crack down on prominent pro-democracy voices, including media mogul Jimmy Lai and activist Agnes Chow.

Wednesday’s mass operation marked China’s most brazen attempt yet to silence Hong Kong’s civil society.

“The largest single day of arrests”

Around a dozen candidates in the primary were arrested, along with longtime pro-democracy lawmakers including former legislator Claudia Mo. So were people who helped organize the primaries, such as a public opinion pollster, according to the Washington Post.

An American lawyer and human rights advocate was also detained, the first US citizen swept up under the new law. Other activists less directly associated with the pro-democracy movement, such as disability rights and labor activists, were also rounded up — a sign that China is intent on stamping out organizing and activism of nearly any kind.

Experts and activists feared the national security law would be a “death sentence” for Hong Kong. Wednesday’s arrests leave little doubt that fear is coming true.

“In the largest single day of arrests yet since the implementation of the National Security Law (NSL), the CCP and Hong Kong authorities sought to root out the whole of the pro-democracy political establishment and movement,” Samuel Chu, director of the US-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, said in a statement.

“In Hong Kong, trying to stand in an election, publishing your political ideals, organizing public gatherings, and expressing your preference in an unofficial primary survey are all considered attempts to ‘subvert the state’s power,’” Chu added.

Nathan Law, a prominent Hong Kong pro-democracy leader who’s since fled to the United Kingdom, called the arrests “devastating.” “A lot of people who are arrested are my friends. I’m actually on the list. If I were to be in Hong Kong, I would be arrested just a couple hours ago,” he said, according to CBS News.

And others may soon be targeted, as there is no sign China is slowing down its crackdown.

“Only when Hong Kong’s national security law is fully and accurately implemented, and firmly and strictly enforced, can national security, Hong Kong’s social stability and public peace be effectively guaranteed,” the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government, Beijing’s official government arm in Hong Kong, said in a statement, per the New York Times.

The crackdown presents yet another crisis awaiting the incoming Biden administration. Secretary of State-designate Tony Blinken called the arrests “an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights. The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong.”

But China is unlikely to stop its siege on Hong Kong’s civil society, especially as the United States is distracted by its own electoral dysfunction and, like the rest of the world, the coronavirus pandemic.

A new US administration will struggle to undo the damage that China has already done to Hong Kong, and even with bipartisan support in Congress, there are limits on what the US can do to challenge Beijing in Hong Kong.

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