Hong Kong has been widely condemned for charging 47 pro-democracy politicians with subversion in the biggest application yet of the city’s national security law.
The charges against the former elected lawmakers and activists — including opposition leader Joshua Wong who is already in jail in a separate case — show the government’s determination to crush opposition in the city, analysts said. The charges are punishable with up to life imprisonment.
Jake Sullivan, US national security adviser, said the detention of the pro-democracy activists underscored China’s “broken promises to the world about Hong Kong’s autonomy & democratic rights”.
“We stand in solidarity with these brave activists,” Sullivan wrote on Twitter.
In a separate statement, Antony Blinken, secretary of state, called for their immediate release. “Political participation and freedom of expression should not be crimes, he said.
Beijing imposed the national security law last June to quell pro-democracy protests that kicked off in 2019. Most prominent activists are in prison, on bail or have fled overseas.
The US condemnation, which came despite Beijing warning the Biden administration last month not to interfere in the territory, followed criticism from the UK and the EU.
“It shows in the starkest terms the national security law being used to eliminate political dissent rather than restore order,” said Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary.
The EU said the “nature of these charges makes clear that legitimate political pluralism will no longer be tolerated in Hong Kong”.
The 47 activists charged on Sunday were among 55 pro-democracy politicians arrested by police in January.
The activists were involved in an unofficial primary vote by the opposition to select the most popular politicians to run in an election for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, the city’s de facto parliament.
Police charged the activists with “conspiracy to commit subversion”, a crime under the national security law. The authorities allege the primary was part of a strategy to topple the government.
John Clancey, an American human rights lawyer based in Hong Kong who was the first expatriate arrested in January, was not charged.
Many of the arrested activists were due to appear in court at a bail hearing on Monday.
Hundreds of Hong Kongers gathered outside the courthouse in anticipation of their appearances, chanting slogans of support including “Regain HK, revolution of our times”, a phrase authorities say violates the security law.
Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the arrests highlighted the intensifying squeeze on the opposition.
“What constitutes a breach of the national security law depends on the determination of the authorities and it’s relatively easy for them to use blanket legislation to incriminate politicians or activists who they think . . . have done something detrimental to the authority of the central government,” he said, referring to Beijing.
The politicians hugged farewell to loved ones and waved goodbye to supporters before giving themselves up to police on Sunday. Some swapped to eyeglasses with plastic frames and shoes without shoelaces in anticipation of being detained for a long period.
“No matter how difficult it will be. I want to tell all of the Hong Kong people, no matter where you are, to keep faithful and to be hopeful and to continue our struggle,” said Lester Shum, one of the arrested politicians, as he held the hands of his wife.
The introduction of the security law has unleashed a crackdown on the city’s previously freewheeling civic life as Beijing has attempted to bring Hong Kong closer to the mainland. Teachers have been disqualified, journalists arrested and civil servants forced to swear loyalty oaths.
China has also signalled a deeper shake-up of the electoral system, saying it wants to ensure only “patriots govern Hong Kong”.