Lee Cheuk-yan has seen a lot during his 63 years in Hong Kong, but this week for the first time he felt horror.
Early Wednesday morning, 1,000 policemen swept the city, carrying out mass arrests of 55 people associated with a move to secure a democratic election. Dozens of students, social workers, lawyers and politicians were detained without warning in the largest assault on the opposition since the implementation of the National Security Act (NSL) in June.
For Lee, a veteran activist, ex-legislator and one of the few people who were not caught in the net, the “absurdity” of the crackdown was chilling.
“The events of yesterday, the horror of them, was so unimaginable and unpredictable, in the way the Communist Party is using the national security law,” he says, his voice echoing with disbelief. “[The primaries] They weren’t even remotely close to anything related to national security, but they used the law anyway. “
The NSL was imposed by Beijing after the massive pro-democracy protests of 2019. It broadly defined and criminalized acts of subversion, secession, foreign collusion, and terrorism.
Those arrested on Wednesday – including jailed activists Joshua Wong and Tam Tak Chi – were accused of subversion. The group included six suspected organizers and each of the candidates involved in an unofficial primary from the pro-democracy camp last year.
Their arrests were revealed by a drip feed of social media posts and dramatic live broadcasts. World governments condemned the repression and, in the United States, Mike Pompeo, the outgoing secretary of state, threatened to impose sanctions for the “campaign of political repression.”
But inside Hong Kong, the aftermath of the unprecedented day felt stronger. It was as if the opposition itself had become illegal.
“The purpose is twofold,” says Lee. “One is to keep putting fear in the minds of people so that they can rule with that fear. And the second is to end any opposition in Hong Kong that may try to challenge them. “
‘Decapitate civil society’
Lee hopes to go to jail. He faces at least four separate criminal trials this year on charges related to the protests, but hasn’t stopped talking in the meantime.
“Anyone in Hong Kong somehow has to be prepared to spend some time in jail,” he says. “You can still fight with your spirit, and physically we cannot be restrained by jail sentences.”
His is one of the few dissenting voices left in Hong Kong. The entire Democratic caucus has either resigned or been disqualified from the legislative council. Dozens have been arrested under the NSL for acts of speech, and veteran leaders like Martin Lee stopped talking about democracy in public months ago.
The movement’s best-known figures, Jimmy Lai, Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, Ivan Lam and Tony Chung, are in jail, while others like Nathan Law, Ted Hui, Pastor Ray Chan and Sunny Cheung have fled abroad.
Cheung, 25, left Hong Kong after running for the primaries and watched from afar as “the entire pro-democracy camp was eradicated by the Beijing government, totally crushed.”
“I’m really worried about the future of activism,” he tells The Guardian. “You can’t really fulfill the responsibility of being a legislator anymore. You cannot dare to oppose anything, there can only be obedient legislators ”.
Wednesday’s raid more than doubled the number of people arrested under the NSL. At least four media groups were ordered to provide information, which allegedly included contact details. The staff of the public broadcaster, RTHK, was warned by their boss do not interview anyone in the group. In the wake of the arrests, civic groups began to dissolve or move its operations and servers abroad.
Others close WhatsApp groups, removed membership records and reassessed donor safety. The Hong Kong Alliance, chaired by Lee, accelerated the digitization of historical documents about the Tiananmen Square massacre out of the jurisdiction.
Carl Mizner, a law professor at Fordham University and an expert on Chinese governance, says that “beheading civil society” was a crucial step in Beijing’s plans to “completely dominate Hong Kong.”
“Rounding up and arresting anyone with a demonstrated ability to mobilize significant popular support is just the beginning,” he said.
‘A cold winter’
The legal basis for the arrests is found in article 22 of the NSL, which defines the crime of subversion to include the organization or planning to seriously interfere with, disrupt or undermine “the performance of duties and functions” by central governments or From Hong Kong.
The primaries drew some 600,000 people to vote. Under the banner of “35+ democracy,” the candidates pledged to win the majority of the 70 legislative council seats and reject the government’s budget, ultimately forcing Chief Executive Officer Carrie Lam to resign.
Government statements said this was enough to fit the NSL’s definition of subversion, but many disagreed.
Alan Leong, a lawyer and a member of the Civic Party who remains in Hong Kong, says authorities had not explained why the actions of the 55 were illegal and the accusation was “ridiculous in the extreme.”
Leong and others said there was a belief in the political circle that even if arrests never amount to convictions, the move was designed to prevent them from running for office and to drive off others, effectively ending political resistance..
Lee says there is no chance for fair elections in Hong Kong in the future now, because the authorities had “purged the opposition.”
“Once you start saying you want to win, they will use the national security law against you. The whole main exercise was to say that we want a majority, ”he says. “So what’s the use of an election if trying to win is a threat to national security? That’s the absurdity. “
However, Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing legislator, believes that at least there will always be opposition. “At [previous] elections, many strangers were elected as long as they ran under the pro-democracy banner. There will be sympathy for those in the pan-democratic camp, ”he says.
As an aspiring candidate in exile, Cheung still believes there is a future. “When the repression is obviously much stronger than the resistance that we can offer now, perhaps many of us have to stay low and be patient, to wait for the next wave to hit the streets,” he said.
By Friday morning, nearly all of those arrested had been released on police bail and their passports confiscated. None had been charged.
“Hong Kong has entered a cold winter, the wind is strong and cold,” Tai said in his statement. “But I think many Hong Kongers will continue to use their own path to move against the wind.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism