HONG KONG – Hong Kong authorities on Sunday accused dozens of pro-democracy figures of violating China’s harsh new national security law, the latest blow to waning hopes for democracy in the former British colony.
It was the strongest use yet of the broad security law, which has cemented the Communist Party’s control over territory long known for its individual freedoms, independent judicial system and rule of law.
Before Sunday, only a handful of people had been formally charged with violating the security law, although about 100 had been arrested on suspicion of doing so. Those convicted of breaking the law can be sentenced to life imprisonment.
Police said each of the 47 people had been charged with a single count of “conspiracy to commit subversion.” Among them is Benny Tai, a former law professor at the University of Hong Kong and a prominent strategist in the pro-democracy camp.
Lester Shum, an activist, was also charged. He said the road to Sunday’s arrests had started with the massive anti-government protests that convulsed the city in 2019.
“We decided a long time ago that we would not bow to authoritarianism,” he said. “I hope that everyone will carry out this decision in the difficult days ahead.”
The charges filed on Sunday are the latest escalation in the Chinese government’s efforts to keep Hong Kong firmly under control. Its tighter control sparked the 2019 protests, which included peaceful marches of hundreds of thousands of people, as well as fights between protesters and police, who sometimes filled the streets of the business district of the Asian financial capital with tear gas.
To curb the protests, the Chinese government last year imposed a national security law, which outlaws what it defines as terrorism, subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces.
The 47 people charged Sunday were charged with violating that law by helping organize an informal primary last July for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy political camp. By doing so, the authorities argue, they may have violated subversion provisions of the law, which prohibit interfering with, disrupting or undermining the functions of the Chinese or Hong Kong governments.
Participants say the primaries were a bit different from others that take place in democracies around the world. More than 600,000 people named their preferred options for running for legislative office in September, generally favoring candidates closely associated with the 2019 protests.
Under a strategy proposed by Tai, the pro-democracy bloc could use a majority in the city’s Legislative Council to block the government budget, which under Hong Kong law could eventually force CEO Carrie Lam to resign.
The September elections were eventually postponed by Ms. Lam’s government, which cited pandemic restrictions. Pro-democracy activists said the delay is most likely an effort to avoid defeat for pro-system candidates, who lost badly in neighborhood-level elections in 2019.
In November, the pro-democracy bloc in the Legislative Council resigned en masse after Beijing expelled four of its members. This month, the Chinese government said it planned to change Hong Kong’s electoral system to ban candidates deemed disloyal to the ruling Communist Party of China. While the details of those changes have yet to be finalized, they are expected to bar all but the most conciliatory opposition figures from taking office.
The 47 defendants Sunday were among 55 who were arrested in January and later released on bail as police continued their investigation. Some of those arrested last month were not charged Sunday, including 79-year-old John Clancey, an American human rights lawyer and former priest who has lived in Hong Kong since the 1960s.
“Most people are willing to sacrifice when they see someone who needs it,” said Clancey, standing outside a police station before a bail date. “I believe that we must maintain the positive vision that the Hong Kong people have had for so many years of being able to build a better society based on human rights and working for democracy.”
The defendants will be arraigned Monday in court in the West Kowloon area, where another trial of pro-democracy activists continues. In that case, seven veteran political figures face charges of illegal assembly for a rally in 2019, including editor Jimmy Lai, union leader Lee Cheuk-yan, lawyer and former legislator Margaret Ng, and Martin Lee, often called the “father. democracy ”in Hong Kong, who helped draft the territory’s mini-constitution.
The defendants on Sunday had been ordered days in advance to report to police, and since then many had been saying goodbye to loved ones and buying essentials, such as slip-on sneakers.
Based on the strict requirements of the security law, it is unlikely that defendants will be released on bail before trial.
Owen Chow, a 24-year-old activist who ran in the primaries and was one of the defendants on Sunday, posted a photo online of a newly tattooed Buddhist chant on his right arm. “It appears that the suffering will continue indefinitely,” he wrote. “What we need is not imagination about suffering, but hope and determination beyond suffering.”