HONG KONG—Authorities charged dozens of the city’s most prominent opposition figures with national-security offenses after the political figures took part in unofficial primary elections, the largest use of the sweeping new law since it was imposed on the territory by Beijing.
Police said they charged 39 men and eight women on Sunday with one count each of conspiracy to commit subversion, and they will appear in court Monday morning.
Those charged had all participated in primaries held by the pro-democracy camp in July, ahead of legislative elections that were later postponed. They had been slated to report back to authorities in April after being arrested in January but were called in to police stations across the city on Sunday. They face years in prison if convicted.
Central-government authorities are expected to outline a tightening of Hong Kong’s political structure at China’s annual legislative session, which opens Friday. The primaries and some opposition plans to use the legislative system to allegedly destabilize the Hong Kong government had angered local and mainland leaders.
Top mainland officials have called for an overhaul of Hong Kong’s system. Proposals to revise how the city’s leader is selected to curb the opposition’s influence and to change rules for local district-council elections are expected to be formalized by the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, according to people familiar with the plan.
Earlier in February a top court in Hong Kong set a high standard for granting bail to anyone charged under the national-security law in a case involving democracy advocate and newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai.
Sunday’s charges center on the self-organized primaries the opposition camp held soon after the security law was imposed. The vote was part of a political strategy to select candidates for elections originally scheduled in September, with the goal of gaining a majority in the 70-seat citywide legislature. Some participants said they would use a majority to block government legislation. Organizers said then that about 600,000 people cast votes.
In January, police arrested those who stood in the primaries and its organizers, accusing them of plotting to paralyze the Hong Kong government through the city’s legislature.
The primary candidates included sitting legislators and younger, new political aspirants. Joshua Wong, a pro-democracy activist, was arrested over the primaries while serving a separate sentence in relation to the 2019 protest movement.
Before Sunday’s arrests, many in the group urged supporters not to worry and expressed their wishes for a more peaceful Hong Kong on the last day of Lunar New Year festivities on Friday.
“This is the road I chose, the road that Hong Kong chose,” former student leader Lester Shum said on Facebook on Sunday. “I must keep walking on. In history, there isn’t such a thing as turning back.
Hong Kong’s opposition has been a primary target since the national security law was imposed in late June. The law makes secession, subversion, terrorism and colluding with foreign forces a crime in the city. Authorities have declared it a success, crediting it in recent months with restoring order in the city.
Many who ran in the primaries were told weeks after that their candidacies for the September 2020 elections were invalid, with authorities citing concerns over their loyalty to the city and its constitution. The government later postponed the elections to September this year, citing the coronavirus pandemic, and extended the sitting legislature.
In November, Beijing forced the expulsion of four pro-democracy members from the interim legislature, accusing them of being disloyal. That sparked the pro-democracy camp’s resignation en masse, leaving the current legislature stacked with pro-Beijing politicians.
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