“With the support of external forces, opposition groups and leaders have deliberately devised plans to hold this so-called ‘primary election,’ which is a serious provocation to the current electoral system and caused serious damage to the fairness and justice of the Legislative Council elections,” the Liaison Office, Beijing’s top representative in the city, said at the time.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong police appeared to follow through on that threat, reportedly arresting primary candidates in an early morning sweep.
Those detained include former Democratic Party lawmakers James To, Andrew Wan, and Lam Cheuk-ting, who had until late last year been members of the city’s Legislative Council, before they and all other members of the pro-democracy bloc stepped down in protest of the government’s decision to eject several lawmakers.
Joshua Wong, the prominent Umbrella Movement activist jailed late last year, is also being investigated in relation to the primary. His home was raided Wednesday morning, a post on his verified social media said.
Hong Kong police did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Wednesday’s arrests are the most dramatic and sweeping escalation under the national security law, which Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and others had once promised would be limited in effect and only target a small number of fringe activists.
“During 2020, you were part of the ’35+’ primary elections, designed to elect 35 or more members of the Legislative Council with the goal of vetoing all government budget policies and motions in order to force the Chief Executive to resign,” the arresting officer says in the video. “(Such acts would) seriously interfere with and obstruct the lawful responsibilities of the government.”
Such a scheme had been proposed by prominent pro democracy activist Benny Tai as a potential tactic to restart the long-stalled political reform process in Hong Kong, in the unlikely situation that pro-democracy candidates won a majority in the semi-democratic legislature, where around half of seats are assigned to so-called “functional constituencies,” chosen by business and other groupings that tend to favor Beijing.
Voting against the budget and forcing the chief executive to resign would have been legal prior to the national security law, similar to a “vote of no confidence” that prompts a general election in many democracies.
Imposed on the city by Beijing in late June 2020, the security law criminalizes secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers, with life imprisonment as the most serious penalty for all offenses. The law also established a dedicated branch of the police and national security courts to hear some cases.
‘Disgraceful and ridiculous’
“I lost count already. But believe all who participated in the pro-democracy primary in Hong Kong last year will be arrested, organizers included,” Lo Kin-hei, chairman of the Democratic Party, said on Twitter. “Very likely over 40 or even 50.”
A law firm connected to the primary, Ho Tse Wai and Partners, was also raided early Wednesday, lawyer Jonathan Man confirmed to CNN. Stand News, a pro-democracy-leaning media outlet, was also visited by police, according to a video posted online.
Former lawmaker Emily Lau described the clampdown as “disgraceful and ridiculous.”
“How can people taking part in a primary election to select candidates be subversive and in breach of the National Security Law,” she said. “This is a blatant attempt to intimidate pro democracy activists and warn people not to engage in politics and collaboration.”
Speaking to CNN late last year, Shum — an elected district councilor — predicted it was a matter of when, not if, he would be arrested, and likely ejected from his seat.
“After 2019, I think we are facing a complete crackdown on democratic movement. And at the level of District Council, we are popularly elected by Hong Kong people … and they may see that as a threat,” Shum said.
Chief Executive Lam appeared to address the city’s political discord in her New Year’s address. “Every time there are quarrels in society, in fact people pay a hefty price,” she said. “That is why for 2021, my biggest hope is for society to have harmony. So that the SAR government, and other public bodies, have more room to do concrete things for Hong Kong.”