The latest salvo against the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has seen more than 50 people arrested in the early hours of Wednesday 6 January 2021. Pro-democracy politicians and campaigners had their homes raided before being detained in an unprecedented crackdown.
In total, 53 individuals were detained on 6 January 2021 under provisions of the National Security Law (NSL), which was imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese mainland in June 2020. The individuals stand accused of “subverting state power”, following a number of primaries being conducted for pro-democracy candidates ahead of the delayed Hong Kong election which had been due to take place in September 2020.
Carrie Lam, Hong-Kong’s Chinese backed leader, postponed the election for one year citing COVID-19 as the reason. At the time, Sophie Richardson of Human Rights Watch said:
“This simply allows Carrie Lam to deny Hong Kong people their right to choose their government. Without making any attempt to look at alternative methods of voting, or ensuring all voting rights will be respected, Lam and her backers in Beijing are merely masking repression under the guise of public health.”
Today’s raids further demonstrate Carrie Lam’s willingness to stifle opposition movements and deny the people of Hong Kong a free and fair election. More than 1,000 officers were involved in an operation that “look[ed] more like a purge than law enforcement” according to Tom Cheshire, Asia correspondent for Sky news.
Among those arrested were several former lawmakers and district councillors, organiser of the primaries Benny Tai and American lawyer John Clancey and Robert Chung who provided the technology that carried out the poll through the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, of which he is the executive director.
It was reported that Joshua Wong was also raided by police, according to his Twitter account, while newspapers Apple Daily and the Stand were visited by police seeking contact information of primary candidates.
Many of those arrested managed to livestream the events, with at least one capturing footage of authorities confirming their arrest was linked to participating in primary polling.
Pro-Democrats had been aiming to win 35 seats in the upcoming election, a majority in the 70 seat LegCo.
Valerie Peay, Director of the International Observatory of Human Rights and past Hong Kong resident voiced her outrage at the move, saying:
“At what point of this travesty will the UK Government hold China accountable for not only dismantling all protections put in place to protect the rights of the Hong Kong people but corrupting all sense of the rule of law? Almost all of the people arrested today were born in Hong Kong pre 1997 under British freedoms. Do their lives count for so little that we will not lift a finger to protect them now less than 24 years later?”
The NSL has a wide scope for what is considered subversion. Including anyone:
“seriously interfering in, disrupting, or undermining the performance of duties and functions in accordance with the law by the body of central power of the People’s Republic of China or the body of power of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”
In practice, this means that acts considered commonplace in western democracies – such as standing in elections – can now be punished in the once semi-autonomous city. Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra said:
“Charging dozens of pro-democracy lawmakers and activists with ‘subversion’, just because they held their own informal primary contest, is a blatant attack on their rights to peaceful expression and association. People have a legitimate right to take part in public affairs. Political opposition should not be silenced just because the authorities don’t like it.
This is not the first crackdown under the NSL – although it is the most extensive single operation. In December 2020, the owner of Hong Kong tabloid Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai was charged with violating the law and Tony Chung, a teenage activist, was found guilty under the law for defiling a Chinese flag.
On news of the law passing, Hong Kong activist and former politician Nathan Law fled Hong Kong and applied for asylum in the UK. In an interview with the Guardian, Law said:
“For a long time too many laboured under the fantasy that China would be a strategic partner with the west, perhaps even one part of the democratic world…The process of awakening from this illusion takes time. In the US, adopting an assertive approach to China and positioning it as one of the country’s greatest enemies is a bipartisan consensus now. This is not the case in the UK and EU; that consensus needs to be built.”
China, the architect of this law, has been widely condemned by the international community for its encroachment on Hong Kong’s freedoms. In June 2020 Julian Braithwaite, the UK’s Ambassador to the WTO and UN in Geneva, delivered a statement on behalf of 27 countries to the UN Human Rights Council, which said:
“Making such a law without the direct participation of Hong Kong’s people, legislature or judiciary of Hong Kong undermines ‘One Country, Two Systems’.
We urge the Chinese and Hong Kong Governments to reconsider the imposition of this legislation and to engage Hong Kong’s people, institutions and judiciary to prevent further erosion of the rights and freedoms that the people of Hong Kong have enjoyed for many years.”
On 13 October 2020, China won election to the UN Human Rights Council. Following their election, the International Observatory of Human Rights began to monitor and document specific human rights abuses committed by the Chinese regime.
Between China’s election in October and taking its seat on the Human Rights Council on 1 January 2021, IOHR tracked over 100 human rights abuses, not including the ongoing daily abuse of the Uyghur Muslims. Within this, 17 abuses directly related to China’s actions in Hong Kong, including: The arbitrary detention of Hong Kong residents, establishment of a ‘snitching hotline’ incentivising residents to report violations of the NSL, requiring lawmakers to pass a ‘patriotism’ test, and the detention of three opposition lawmakers.
A slither of hope for those detained today might manifest in Hong Kong’s courtrooms. So far, Hong Kong’s courts have dismissed many of the charges brought against protesters under former laws and Hong Kong’s, albeit outgoing, chief justice has reaffirmed the courts commitment to the rule of law.
Worryingly, the NSL provides for the possibility of trials on the Chinese mainland and China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office has also lobbied for the need for “”judicial reform” in Hong Kong itself.