Hong Kong police arrest over 50 opposition figures, together with US lawyer

HONG KONG – Dozens of Hong Kong opposition activists, including an American lawyer, were arrested on Wednesday for subversion in what activists see as a brazen attempt to contain remaining dissent in semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

Hong Kong police confirmed to ABC News that around 1,000 officers were used on Wednesday to arrest 53 people for alleged subversion and to search 72 locations.

Steve Li Kwai-Wah, chief superintendent of the National Security Unit of the Hong Kong Police Department, said six people were arrested for organizing the alleged act, while the other 47 were arrested for participating. Police have also frozen Hong Kong $ 1.6 million (US $ 206,000). Li said the group had attempted strategic voting to secure more than 35 seats on the Hong Kong Legislative Council in an attempt to veto the government budget and force the city’s leader to resign and shut down the government.

The wave of arrests marks the most significant consolidation of pro-democracy figures under a controversial national security law since China passed Hong Kong legislation six months ago.

Most of the detainees were either in an unofficial elementary school or organized an unofficial elementary school last July to select opposition candidates for the September general election. The Hong Kong government later announced that it would be postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. Many were popular district councilors sweeping the November 2019 election as the city was ravaged by anti-government protests.

At the time of the poll in July, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam had warned that this could be an act of subversion.

American human rights lawyer John Clancey was among those arrested on Wednesday. This made him the first known US citizen to be detained under the Hong Kong National Security Act. Clancey works for the Hong Kong law firm Ho, Tse, Wai & Partners, which was featured in a video broadcast on social media that was searched by police on Wednesday.

Clancey is also Chairman of the Asian Human Rights Commission and Treasurer of Power for Democracy, one of the organizers of the July 2020 unofficial primary.

Dozens of those arrested updated their Facebook pages to confirm they had been arrested on suspicion of “subversion of the state,” including Claudia Mo, Leung Kwok-hung and Eddie Chu, and co-organizer of the unofficial Benny Tai Elementary School. Colleagues of prominent activist Joshua Wong, who co-founded the now-defunct pro-democracy group Demosisto in 2016, said his house was also ransacked on Wednesday.

One of the lesser-known inmates is Lee-Chi-yung, who ran in last year’s elections to make the city more wheelchair accessible. Lee was motivated by the struggle of his late daughter with a severe disability.

Under Hong Kong’s National Security Law, which criminalizes anything the Chinese government deems to be assault, secession, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces, those arrested could receive a maximum sentence in prison.

Ronny Tong, a senior adviser to Lam, the leader of Hong Kong, told ABC News that he was confident that due process was being followed.

“I understand that many people are very concerned that certain Pan-Democrats are being arrested by the SAR government in connection with a so-called elementary school,” Tong said. “I am confident that although many people will be arrested, they will be treated fairly according to the law.”

Well-known Hong Kong activist Nathan Law, who fled to London shortly before the national security law came into force, described the mass arrests as “outrageous”. Law was another founding member of Demosisto, which was dissolved the same day Beijing passed the new legislation.

“It is an obvious act to disregard people’s democratic rights and to insult democracy,” he told ABC News. “This is another round of political persecution. I urge the international community to react, including the European Parliament, to stop the EU-China investment deal.”

Emily Lau, a former Democratic Party lawmaker who was the first woman directly elected to the Hong Kong Legislative Council in 1991, also incriminated the recent detentions, calling them “shameful and ridiculous”.

“This is an obvious attempt to intimidate pro-democracy activists and warn people not to get involved in politics and cooperation,” Lau told ABC News.

The election of US President-elect Joe Biden as Secretary of State Antony Blinken went to Twitter to condemn the Hong Kong arrests, calling it “an attack on those who valiantly stand up for universal rights”. He said Biden’s new government would “stand with the people of Hong Kong and Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”

The timing of the arrests raised some eyebrows in the midst of a crucial runoff election for the US Senate in the battlefield state of Georgia and just two weeks before Biden’s inauguration.

“It seems like a pretty aggressive move, and it’s not going to go down well in Washington,” said David Zweig, professor emeritus of social sciences at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and chief executive of Transnational China Consulting Limited.

“You’d think they’d been waiting to do something like this until the new administration came in,” he told ABC News. “Perhaps people think that now is the chance, now that there is a pause between the election and the inauguration, and that this gives them time to do so.”

The arrests also come a week after the European Union agreed to a trade deal with China that has been in place for seven years.

Wednesday’s arrests are part of a broader crackdown on the pro-democracy movement that has gripped Hong Kong for months in 2019 and poses one of the greatest challenges to the Chinese Communist Party’s rule in decades. The protests have more or less subsided since the national security law came into force.

Beijing says the legislation is necessary to restore stability to Hong Kong. However, the law has been heavily criticized by the international community, with both the United States and the European Union saying it suppresses freedoms guaranteed under the one country, two systems agreement between Hong Kong and mainland China.

Other prominent opposition activists who remain detained under the national security law include media tycoon Jimmy Lai and Agnes Chow, who co-founded the now-defunct Demosisto group with Wong and Law.

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