Campaigners and politicians held in wave of arrests under the national security law

The legal scholar Benny Tai (C), is driven away in a car after he was among those arrestedThe legal scholar Benny Tai (C), is driven away in a car after he was among those arrested. Photograph: GNPHOTO-YUNG/AP

More than 50 people, including pro-democracy politicians and campaigners, have been arrested in early-morning raids across Hong Kong in a crackdown by authorities that was condemned as a “despicable” assault on freedom.

In a police operation involving more than 1,000 officers, the 53 individualswere detained under the territory’s controversial national security law (NSL), accused of “subverting state power” by holding primaries for pro-democracy candidates for the Hong Kong election.

That election was ultimately delayed by the chief executive, Carrie Lam, for a year, purportedly because of the pandemic, and has not yet taken place.

The raids, on Wednesday, sent shock waves around the once semi-autonomous city, as social media posts and news reports confirmed arrest after arrest. By mid-morning, lists of more than 50 individuals emerged, reportedly including every candidate to have run in the unofficial primaries last year, as well as organisers and pollsters, and the first known foreigner – an American lawyer – to be arrested under the law.

“Being arrested for sedition for taking part in democracy,” tweeted Dr Kwok Ka Ki, one of four legislators disqualified in November, who was detained on Wednesday morning.

Some of the targets livestreamed their own arrests, with at least one video capturing police confirming the accusations against them: participating in primary polling for the pro-democracy camp, with the ultimate aim of winning a majority in the legislative council. Under the new laws this was subversion, authorities said. The NSL defines subversion as including organising or planning to seriously interfere, disrupt or undermine “the performance of duties and functions” by the central or Hong Kong governments, and carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment for “principal offenders”.

On Wednesday afternoon, police said 47 people had been arrested for participating in, and six for organising, the primaries. Officers searched 72 premises and ordered four media companies to hand over materials.

Li Kwai-wah, the head of the police force’s NSL department, said the accused intended to use an “advantage in LegCo” (the legislative council) to vote down bills and force the resignation of the chief executive.

“We are finding some people have been seriously interfering, disrupting, and undermining the operation of the Hong Kong government,” he said, displaying a presentation of their alleged “plan”.

Among those named by political parties or local media as having been arrested were former lawmakers Helena Wong, Lam Cheuk-ting, Chu Hoi-dick, Claudia Mo and Leung Kwok-hung, as well as co-organiser of the polls – legal scholar Benny Tai. The Facebook page of jailed activist Joshua Wong said his home was also raided on Wednesday morning.

Earlier reports that the pollster Robert Chung had been arrested were later found to be incorrect.

The Hong Kong security secretary, John Lee, told local media police had arrested a group of people who aimed to “paralyse” the city’s government, referring to a widely shared analysis by Tai, as evidence the polls were a premeditated and “vicious” plan to “sink Hong Kong into an abyss”.

At a press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Alan Leong, lawyer and member of the Civic party, labeled the suggestion “ridiculous in the extreme”. Sitting alongside a vastly reduced pro-democracy caucus, Leong said the right to vote against legislation was enshrined in Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law.

“These provisions guarantee the power of the legislature to scrutinise the executive. We don’t see how by promising to exercise such rights could end up making them subversive,” he said.

Leong acknowledged Hong Kong people would be despairing, but said “there are enough of a critical mass who are prepared to continue the fight for democracy”.

“There will be light at the end of the dark tunnel, and every dark night will see the dawn. So let us just stand and fight, and keep up our spirits,” he said.

The Hong Kong lawyer and US citizen John Clancey was also arrested and the offices of his law firm visited by police. Clancey has spoken in public about the legal ramifications of the NSL.

The unprecedented crackdown more than doubled the number of people arrested under the Beijing-imposed NSL, which Lam once assured the public would be used against only a small group of criminal elements and would not affect the lives of regular Hongkongers.

Police are seen inside the office of former pro-democracy lawmaker and lawyer Albert Ho after more than 50 Hong Kong opposition figures were arrested.
Police are seen inside the office of former pro-democracy lawmaker and lawyer Albert Ho after more than 50 Hong Kong opposition figures were arrested. Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP/Getty Images

But amid the mass arrests and criminalisation of dissent, the law has had a chilling effect across the city, and Hongkongers are increasingly reluctant to speak publicly. A former bank employee in her 40s, who asked for her identity to be protected, told the Guardian she was “shocked, angry and speechless”. She said: “I just want to leave, as soon as possible. I have lost all hope in Hong Kong.”

A retired driver in his 70s said: “I am utterly heartbroken that it has become a place like this. Hong Kong is ruled by the Communist party; it is beyond help.”

Prof Kenneth Chan, a political scientist and leader of the Election Observation Project, which reported on the primaries, said: “It’s outrageous and it is not the end, because the purge will go on. It’s tyranny v democracy, as we witness how human rights and civil liberties are violated over and over in the name of national security. The people and the city are in danger because of the oppressive regime.”

Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the mass arrests removed “the remaining veneer of democracy in the city”.

“Beijing once again has failed to learn from its mistakes in Hong Kong: that repression generates resistance, and that millions of Hong Kong people will persist in their struggle for their right to vote and run for office in a democratically elected government.”

The UK-based Hong Kong Watch accused Beijing of “once again undermining Hong Kong’s democracy and breaching its obligations under the Sino-British joint declaration, which set out the terms of the return of the territory from the UK to China in 1997.

Taiwan’s mainland affairs council said the incident showed the NSL had turned Hong Kong from the “pearl of the Orient” into the “purgatory of the Orient”.

Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, said supporting democracy was now clearly to be regarded as illegal in Hong Kong. “Apparently Hong Kong citizens are to be forced to love Beijing’s communists, or else.”

International condemnation and diplomatic sanctions on Beijing and Hong Kong officials have had little to no impact on the crackdown.

At a regular press briefing on Wednesday, China’s ministry of foreign affairs spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said the government supported Hong Kong authorities fulfilling their duties, and a short time later the Liaison Office offered its support.

The office, Beijing’s highest representative body in Hong Kong, made a distinction between those who “strategically organise or implement the paralysis of the government and those who are misled to vote in the so-called primary election”, and singled out Tai by name as having “sinister intentions”.

The timing of the arrests was widely seen as deliberate, occurring on the day of the US runoff vote in Georgia, two weeks before Joe Biden’s inauguration, and just after the EU agreed a trade deal with China.

Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of state, labelled the arrests “an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights” and said the incoming Biden-Harris administration would stand with Hong Kong people against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.

The primary polls, while not a formal part of Hong Kong’s election process, drew an estimated 600,000 people out to vote for democracy candidates in what was seen as a litmus test of the public’s response to government crackdowns, and an act of protest.

Beijing labelled the primaries illegal and accused organisers of colluding with foreign powers in a “serious provocation” of Hong Kong’s electoral system. Until Wednesday, about 35 people had been arrested under the law, and four charged, including the media mogul Jimmy Lai. Prosecutors have fought to ensure none are released on bail, suggesting anyone charged from Wednesday’s raids will probably be detained.