Hundreds of Hong Kongers have braved the threat of prosecution to protest the charges of 47 pro-democracy politicians who have been dragged into the city’s largest national security law case.
Gathered outside of bail for the arrested activists on Monday, protesters chanted slogans including “Regain HK, revolution of our time,” a phrase authorities said was violating security law.
Former elected lawmakers and activists – including Joshua Wong, the opposition leader already jailed in a separate case – were charged with undermining on Sunday in a move that underscored the government’s determination to quell dissent in the city, said critics.
Jake Sullivan, the US National Security Adviser, said the arrests underscore China’s “broken promises to the world about Hong Kong’s autonomy and democratic rights.”
“We stand in solidarity with these brave activists,” Sullivan wrote on Twitter.
In a separate statement, Antony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, called for their immediate release. “Political participation and freedom of speech should not be crimes,” he said.
Beijing imposed national security law last June to quell pro-democracy protests that started in 2019. Most prominent activists are in prison, on bail or have fled abroad.
The US conviction, which came despite Beijing’s warning to the Biden administration last month not to interfere with the territory, followed criticism from the UK and the EU.
“It shows in its starkest terms that the National Security Law is being used to eliminate political dissent rather than restore order,” said Dominic Raab, the British Foreign Secretary.
The 47 activists charged on Sunday were among 55 pro-democracy politicians arrested by police in January.
The activists were involved in an unofficial pre-election of the opposition to select the most popular politicians for elections to the Hong Kong Legislative Council, the city’s de facto parliament.
Police charged the activists with “conspiring to commit subversion,” a crime under national security law punishable by life imprisonment. Authorities claim the primary was part of a strategy to overthrow the government.
John Clancey, a US human rights lawyer based in Hong Kong who was detained in January and became the first expatriate to be arrested under security law, was not charged.
Willy Lam, a China expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the arrests underscored the mounting pressure on the opposition.
“What constitutes a violation of the national security law depends on the determination of the authorities and it is relatively easy for them to use general legislation to accuse politicians or activists they believe have done something detrimental to the authorities. from the central government, ”he said, referring to Beijing.
Ahead of the court hearing, the comments of Xia Baolong, Beijing’s top bureaucrat who oversees the city, were made public in February. Xia selected two of the 47 accused persons, Benny Tai and Joshua Wong, as well as Jimmy Lai, a media mogul who is pro-democracy, saying they should be “severely punished by law”.
Monday’s bail hearing was tense. Police were on hand to keep an eye on the crowd of supporters, many of whom had spent hours out of court.
“We can’t make people think everything has cooled down,” said a person outside the courthouse who identified himself as Leung.
On Sunday, the politicians said goodbye to loved ones and waved goodbye to supporters before surrendering themselves to the police. Some switched to plastic-framed glasses and shoes without shoelaces while awaiting long-term detention.
‘It doesn’t matter how difficult it will be. I want to tell all people in Hong Kong, wherever you are, to stay faithful and be hopeful and continue our fight, ” said Lester Shum, one of the arrested politicians, holding his wife’s hand.
The introduction of the security law has led to a crackdown on the city’s previously liberal civic life. Teachers have been disqualified, journalists arrested and officials forced to pledge allegiance.
China has also signaled a deeper shake up in the electoral system, saying it wants to ensure that only “patriots rule Hong Kong”.