Nearly every main voice of dissent in Hong Kong is now in jail or exile, after Hong Kong police charged 47 pro-democracy campaigners and politicians with conspiracy to commit subversion. All face life in prison if convicted.
The group comprises most of the 55 people arrested last month, over primary polls held last year, in a dawn raid that marked the single biggest operation conducted under the controversial and draconian national security law.
On Sunday, the police force said all but eight had been charged with a single count, and would be detained ahead of court mentions on Monday morning.
The European Union’s office in Hong Kong said the charges made clear that “legitimate political pluralism will no longer be tolerated in Hong Kong”, and called for the immediate release of the detainees. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused authorities of using the national security law to silence critics, called for all charges to be dropped.
Those arrested include young campaigners, activists, and local councillors, as well as established politicians such as Claudia Mo, Eddie Chu Hoi-dick and Ray Chan. The activist and former politician Joshua Wong is already in jail, serving 13 months on protest-related charges.
The mass charge had been feared since the individuals were told on Friday to report to police a month earlier than previously instructed. Many began making preparations on the expectation they would be charged and denied bail, including spending time with family, arranging care for their pets, and buying comfortable clothes for prison.
Local media reported the Democratic party legislators James To and Roy Kwong, and the American lawyer John Clancey, were among the eight not charged on Sunday. Clancey told reporters his bail was extended to 4 May, and said Hong Kong was increasingly like living in a detention centre, “with the freedoms and rights of people being constrained more and more”.
Speaking outside the police station before going inside, Jimmy Sham, a key organiser of the 2019 protests, said they would remain strong and continue fighting. “Democracy is never a gift from heaven. It must be earned by many with strong will,” he said. “We can tell the whole world, under the most painful system, Hongkongers are the light of the city.”
Many of those charged left messages to their supporters on social media.
The charge is the first for Claudia Mo, 64, a former journalist and outspoken pro-democracy legislator who resigned with colleagues in protest last year. “I maybe physically feeble, but I’m mentally sturdy,” she wrote on Facebook on Sunday.
“No worries. We all love Hong Kong yah.”
Chu said he was grateful to the people of Hong Kong for the opportunity to contribute, and was “deeply honoured” to be charged over their common ideals.
The former legislator Kwok Ka-ki said: “Prisons can isolate us, but they cannot stop us from connecting with each other and taking care of each other; chains can lock our bodies but can’t hold our minds and souls!
“Stay calm and carry on. This too shall pass! Remember: it is not hope to hold on, it is persistence to have hope!”
The charges stem from unofficial primaries held last year by the pan-democrat camp in an attempt to find the strongest candidates to run in Hong Kong’s election and win a majority in the legislative council. The mass protest movement of 2019 and the brutal crackdown by authorities had driven greater support towards the pro-democracy side of politics, and in district council elections in late 2019 they won the vast majority of seats. More than 600,000 Hongkongers turned out to vote in the polls.
But at the time of the arrests, the Hong Kong security secretary, John Lee, told local media those arrested had aimed to “paralyse” the city’s government with their plan to win the election and block legislation. He referred to an earlier published editorial by the organiser of the primaries, the legal scholar Benny Tai, as evidence of a premeditated and “vicious” plan to “sink Hong Kong into an abyss”.
In an earlier social media post on Sunday, Tai wrote: “My chance of bail won’t be too great.”
The election was ultimately postponed for a year, ostensibly because of the pandemic. Since that time, the Beijing and Hong Kong governments have introduced numerous new impediments to opposition candidates winning, or even running in the elections. Last week, they announced rules requiring all politicians and candidates pledge an oath of loyalty to the rule of the Chinese Communist party and swear not to act against the government, or face disqualification.
Officials said the new laws would ensure that only “patriots” could govern Hong Kong, with one spelling out that patriotism meant loyalty to the Communist party.
The laws are the latest efforts by authorities to wipe out dissent in Hong Kong, using the sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing last June, with the blessing of the Hong Kong government. At least 99 people have been arrested under the law so far, which is broadly defined to outlaw acts of subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism.