Hong Kong’s Purge: Every 2020 Pro-democracy LegCo Candidate Arrested Under National Security Law

Fifty-three people have been arrested for “subversion” under the Hong Kong National Security Law, including every single pro- candidate for the delayed 2020 Legislative Council elections. Around 1000 police officers were deployed in an early morning raid that also led to the searching of 72 locations, including a law firm, and the freezing of HK$1.6million in funds. The arrests more than doubled the number of people arrested under the National Security Law since it was enacted slightly more than six months ago. The subversion arrests were made in connection with the candidates’ participation in an informal primary election, which was partly organized by former professor and Occupy Central Movement leader Benny Tai, who was also arrested on Wednesday. Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced an investigation into the primaries after they drew more than 600,000 voters in July, with turnout more than doubling organizers’ expectations.

In addition to legislative candidates and primary organizers, John Clancey, an American lawyer who served as treasurer of the group that organized the primaries, was also arrested, making him the first solely foreign citizen to be arrested under the National Security Law. Police raided his law firm’s offices, and also delivered court orders requesting documents from three media organizations, in a move that has added to earlier alarm about press freedom in the city.

In November 2020, the disqualification of four sitting pro-democracy lawmakers prompted the mass resignation of every opposition member in the Legislative Council, wiping out institutional opposition in the city’s lawmaking body. But the indiscriminate arrest of every pro-democracy candidate that intended to run for election to LegCo, whose primary vote shares ranged from 200,000 votes to as little as 300, presents the gravest assault on Hong Kong’s limited democracy to date. Almost every prominent and active pro-democracy activist was swept up in Wednesday’s arrests. The candidates, who include lawyers, social workers, union organizers, doctors, and disability rights activists, face the prospect of maximum sentences of life in prison.

Meeting with the press on Wednesday, Secretary for Security John Lee portrayed the primary election as an “evil” plot to subvert the country through “mutual destruction.” South China Morning Post’s Natalie Wong, Danny Lee, and Chris Lau reported on Lee’s allegations:

The opposition figures were trying to “overthrow [the government] or seriously interfere with … the government’s legal execution of duty”, [Lee] claimed.

“They aimed to get 35 or more seats in the Legislative Council through [a primary] so … they could veto the government budget regardless of the actual content [and] create a situation in which the chief executive had to resign, and the government stopped functioning. This was to paralyse the government,” he said.

“They had a 10-step mutual destruction plan, in which they would mobilise mass-scale riots in streets, together with other actions to paralyse the society, coupled with international sanctions. The plan was to… [using their words] ‘jump the cliff.’” [Source]

The 10-step “mutual destruction plan” described by Lee originated from an opinion piece by then-Hong Kong University professor Benny Tai, who outlined a plan that partially involved using a legislative majority to veto Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s budget as a means of forcing her to resign. Xinqi Su translated the 10-step plan in a Twitter thread after it was published in April 2020, more than two months before the National Security Law was introduced:

On Wednesday, National Security Department senior superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah alleged that the arrested candidates, by participating in the primary with the intention of winning the subsequent election, gaining a majority, and paralyzing the government, had violated Article 22(3) of the National Security Law:

Article 22: A person who organises, plans, commits or participates in any of the following acts by force or threat of force or other unlawful means with a view to subverting the State power shall be guilty of an offense:

[…] (3) seriously interfering in, disrupting, or undermining the performance of duties and functions in according with the law by the body of central power of the People’s Republic of China or the body of power of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region; [Source]

But observers were quick to point out that the plan laid out by Benny Tai was based only on existing constitutional provisions in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. In particular, Article 52 of the Basic Law enumerates conditions under which the Chief Executive is obligated to resign:

Article 52

The Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region must resign under any of the following circumstances:

(3) When, after the Legislative Council is dissolved because it refuses to pass a budget or any other important bill, the new Legislative Council still refuses to pass the original bill in dispute. [Source]

Analysts have suggested that the tension between the Basic Law and the arrests under the NSL may present a high stakes legal dilemma for Hong Kong’s courts, which are already under substantial pressure from Beijing.

In addition to candidates who ran in the primary election, five others who helped to organize the primary were also arrested: Benny Tai, former lawmaker Au Nok-hin, district councilors Andrew Chiu and Ben Chung, and the American solicitor John Clancey.

Clancey’s law firm, Ho Tse Wai & Partners, is known for taking on human rights cases–in 2013, it assisted American whistleblower Edward Snowden after U.S. authorities demanded his arrest in the city. Clancey is the chairman of the Asian Human Rights Commission and a member of the Executive Committee of the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group. On Wednesday, the law firm was searched by national security police, though it subsequently released a statement stressing no confidential client information was compromised.

National security police officers also delivered warrants to three media organizations with reputations for being supportive of the pro-democracy movement: Stand News, Apple Daily, and InMedia HK. The court orders requested that the media groups produce documents relating to the primary election, a move that has intensified concerns about press freedom. Last year, police organized a massive raid of Apple Daily’s offices and arrested the paper’s owner, Jimmy Lai, who remains in prison pending national security charges.

It was on a sunny day in July 2020, 11 days after the enactment of the National Security Law, that voters began to line up to vote in the informal primary for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy bloc. Poll organizers relied on a grassroots network of volunteers who established makeshift voting stations in shops and apartments. For WIRED Magazine, Tim McLaughlin wrote in July 2020 about the primary, and some of the candidates running for the first time:

THE VOTERS BEGAN arriving just before noon on July 11. Soon a line of some two dozen people had formed, snaking past a nail salon and a beauty parlor lit with purple neon lights. The temperature outside was reaching into the 90s. The heat, coupled with Hong Kong’s summer humidity and the face masks to ward off Covid-19, made the narrow shopping arcade a welcome respite from the sun. Those waiting to cast their ballots tapped on their phones, reading about the candidates and chatting with each other, using their final minutes to settle on their picks. An volunteer walked up and down the line answering questions.

The voting, which took place across the city, was largely a smooth, efficient process. The lines were orderly, and updates on the vote count—first tens, then hundreds of thousands of ballots cast—were announced on social media as day turned into evening. But the hints that this democratic experiment was not entirely official were hard to miss. No government employees tallied votes or checked IDs. Once they shuffled past the nail salon, voters in the Kennedy Town neighborhood popped in and out of My Secret, a cramped lingerie shop, casting their ballots surrounded by flesh-tone bras with oversized padded cups.

Over that day and the next, 610,000 people voted in the election, more than double earlier estimations of the turnout. (Hong Kong has some 4.6 million registered voters.) At its most basic, the vote was a primary to decide which pro-democracy candidates would stand in the territory’s formal elections in September. It was not part of the government-recognized election process and was organized instead by civil society groups. But in the context of China’s aggressive campaign to remake Hong Kong, even turning up to vote involved risk, and the strong showing became yet another sign that Hong Kongers refuse to give up their rights quietly. [Source]

The arrests on Wednesday have raised fears that the hundreds of thousands of voters who participated in the primary would also be targeted under the NSL. Secretary for Security Lee said that voters were not targeted in Wednesday’s operation, describing them as “non-active elements.” Police said that they would not launch criminal investigations into voters, but would continue to arrest more people in connection with the primary.

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Wednesday’s arrests was the sweeping up of even obscure candidates who had garnered a tiny fraction of the vote. They included Lee Chi-yung, a disability rights activist who was driven to run for office following the death of his daughter, a wheelchair user who had struggled with mobility in the city. His campaign proposals included legalizing electric wheelchairs, improving barrier-free access at stops, and allowing wheelchairs in bicycle lanes. Lee won just 304 votes, or 0.18% of the votes in his district.

Another arrested candidate is Jeffrey Andrews, Hong Kong’s first licensed social worker of non-Chinese descent, who turned around a life in Hong Kong’s triads to advocate for refugee rights and better minority representation in the city. Andrews had won awards for his community service from organizations ranging from Manchester United to Cathay Pacific. Despite coming dead last in his race, he had written on social media about his gratitude for being able to participate.

Hong Kong Free Press has compiled a list of all of those arrested on Wednesday.

Correction: an earlier version of this post used the term “charge” in three places when it should have used “arrest.” The democracy supporters were not immediately charged at the time of their arrests on January 6.

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