Since the imposition of the National Security Law, most of Hong Kong’s prominent democratic activists have either been arrested or gone into exile. That includes Joshua Wong, who was sent to prison in December on charges of illegal assembly, and Nathan Law, who left Hong Kong soon after the law was implemented in July.
On January 6, with global attention focused on the messy aftermath of the U.S. elections, the Hong Kong police arrested 53 prominent political activists, searched 76 places, and froze $200,000 of assets under the National Security Law. Those arrested where charge with subversion for the alleged crime of organizing and participating in the democratic primaries for the postponed 2020 Legislative Council election, originally scheduled for September 2020.
The primaries were intended to boost the pro-democracy camp’s chance of winning a majority in the legislature. Their goal, quite simply, was to win an election. But the government framed the primaries as a means to “overthrow the government” because some candidates proposed using their majority status to veto the government’s budget, hence forcing the chief executive to resign.
The arrested candidates, though often known collectively as the “democratic camp,” did not necessarily share the same political stance. Yet they were united under the dream of holding a genuine election free of government manipulation, which was exemplified by the primaries – all Hong Kong citizens could participate in the nomination and voting process. It was not their radical speech or action that got them arrested, but simply their participation in a democratic election.
The National Security Law is designed to rein in civil society and raze voices for democracy. If the primary election itself is deemed subversive, how long will it be before even the 600,000 Hong Kong people who voted and supported the primaries are also subjected to similar charges? Sooner or later, holding a foreign passport, speaking Cantonese, or using Twitter (which is banned on mainland China) could all be a reason for National Security Law charges.
After all, Beijing alone gets to decide whether someone is endangering national security.
Hong Kong authorities have also attacked those arrested for seeking to “paralyze” the government by winning a majority in the legislature and stonewalling the budget. Refusing the government’s budget is a right granted by Hong Kong’s mini-constitution to elected legislators. Without the ability to say no, the legislative body loses its purpose of checking and balancing the executive branch.
Chinese officials have repeatedly attacked the principle of separation of power in the past. In their governing style, the ideal legislature should rubber-stamp everything the government puts forth. The National Security Law provided the legal means to enforce this vision, completing the Chinese Communist Party’s fantasy of bringing “the rule of law with Chinese characteristics” to Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong government could not afford to let the democratic candidates demonstrate their substantial base of support. Nor could Beijing allow civil society to deviate from its sphere of control. Be it the press, academia, the church, or even a polling mechanism, any center of influence or power outside of the CCP’s grasp is seen as a potential vulnerability that has to be eliminated.
The Hong Kong government chose to crack down on politicians, lawyers, and journalists during the final days of the U.S. election certification, hoping that the controversy in Washington, D.C. would distract international attention from its domestic oppression. And for the first time, an American lawyer who does not hold a Hong Kong passport was also implicated in Hong Kong’s national security issues.
China’s state media and officials are milking the timing of the attack on the Capitol in the United States to prove their points. They have compared the Capitol unrest on January 6 to when Hong Kong protesters stormed the Legislative Council on July 1, 2019. By drawing a connection between the two incidents, the CCP wants to equate democracy with chaos and prove that the crackdown on the Hong Kong protests was right and appropriate.
From the arrest of young activists to senior politicians, Beijing has made its point clear: Political opposition is now illegal in Hong Kong. Through earlier arrests of other political figures, the government has finished “testing the water” and has learned that it faces few consequences from the international community for its repressive actions.
While some Hong Kongers might have anticipated a mass arrests would happen sooner or later, the world should never tolerate the government’s move to criminalize voices for democracy. It is time for world governments to stop sitting on the sidelines and begin augmenting sanctions on China before it extends its threats to liberal values worldwide.
The author acknowledges Brian Kot for his assistance in this piece.
Frances Hui is the founding director of We The Hongkongers, an organization that promotes the culture and identity of Hong Kongers in the U.S. Previously a journalist, her work has been featured by international media, such as The New York Times, Washington Post, and NBC.