Hong Kong—Hong Kong police charged dozens of dissidents with subversion on Sunday in the largest use yet of Beijing’s sweeping new national security law, as authorities move to cripple the finance hub’s democracy movement.
Last month 55 of the city’s best-known democracy campaigners were arrested in a series of dawn raids.
On Sunday, police confirmed 47 of them had been charged with one count each of “conspiracy to commit subversion”—one of the new national security crimes—and would appear in court on Monday morning.
Beijing is battling to stamp out dissent in semi-autonomous Hong Kong after swathes of the population hit the streets in 2019 in huge and sometimes violent democracy protests.
The security law, imposed on the city last June, criminalises acts deemed to be subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Those charged are routinely denied bail until trial and face up to life in prison if convicted.
The charged activists are a broad cross-section of Hong Kong’s opposition, from veteran former pro-democracy lawmakers such as James To and Claudia Mo to academics, lawyers, social workers and a host of youth activists.
Some struck a cautiously defiant tone as they prepared to report to police on Sunday to hear the charges.
“Democracy is never a gift from heaven. It must be earned by many with strong will,” Jimmy Sham, a key organizer of 2019’s huge protests, told reporters outside a police station.
“We can tell the whole world, under the most painful system, Hong Kongers are the light of the city. We will remain strong and fight for what we want,” he added. Gwyneth Ho, a young journalist turned activist, posted on her Facebook page before being charged: “I hope everyone can find their road to peace of mind and then press forward with indomitable will.”
The alleged offense of those arrested for subversion was to organise an unofficial primary last summer to choose candidates for the city’s partially elected legislature, in hopes that the pro-democracy bloc might take a majority for the first time.
Many of those candidates were ultimately disqualified from standing, and authorities scrapped the election because of the coronavirus.
But Chinese and Hong Kong officials described the primary as an attempt to “overthrow” and “paralyze” the city’s government and therefore a threat to national security.
Western nations have accused Beijing of using its crackdown to shred the freedoms that were promised under the “One Country, Two Systems” setup when the former British colony was returned to China.
After last month’s arrests the UN’s rights watchdog said the sweep confirmed fears the security law was “being used to detain individuals for exercising legitimate rights to participate in political and public life.”
Beijing said the security law would target only an “extreme minority” and was needed to restore stability.