HONG KONG — Some sat down for one last long meal with their partners. Another went to a tattoo artist to ink a Buddhist mantra on his forearm. One purchased new pink-rimmed glasses to replace her contact lenses, dropped off her two cats to a friend, and swapped sneakers for wool slip-on shoes.
Then, on Sunday afternoon, the Hong Kong pro-democracy activists fanned out to police stations across the territory, where more than 40 of them were officially charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion” under the national security law, according to police. They were detained immediately, will be held overnight for a court session on Monday, and face life in prison if found guilty.
The charging of such a large group represents the harshest and widest use of Beijing’s national security law in Hong Kong to date, dramatically increasing the number of people taken under the draconian legislation. Friends and family fear they will be denied bail and instead remain in detention before trial, like the five previously detained under the law — a significant departure from Hong Kong’s common law system.
The charges now mean that every prominent, and even moderate, opposition voice in Hong Kong is either now in jail or in exile, crushing the city’s democratic aspirations as Beijing tightens its grips around the city’s core institutions.
“None of us knew the situation would become like this today,” said Tiffany Yuen in an interview before stepping into the police station in the district she represents as an elected local official. Holding back tears behind her new pink glasses, the 27 year-old said that she had no regrets.
“We cannot judge whether our choices were right or wrong based on the consequences now,” Yuen said. “This was our responsibility, which as a Hong Konger, you want to bear in that moment.”
Those charged on Sunday were among more than 50 Hong Kong residents arrested in January under the security law, accused of subversion for holding a primary vote last July ahead of legislative elections. Those legislative elections were ultimately postponed, and some of them were barred from running in them anyway, demonstrating how Beijing is using the full force of laws available to eliminate dissent and political opposition in the city.
Last week, the Hong Kong government, following a pronouncement from Beijing, further tightened laws to ensure only “patriots” run for office — defined as those loyal to the Communist Party.
At the time, those arrested were detained, questioned and made to turn over their phones and passports, but were released. The charges on Sunday intensifies the persecution of the Hong Kong’s activists, who Beijing see as responsible for whipping up anti-government sentiment that led to mass protests in 2019, though the movement was largely leaderless.
The detentions also demonstrate that the law is not just a deterrent but an active tool to be used against any opposition. The national security law, drafted entirely by Beijing and passed without any consultation in Hong Kong, criminalizes broadly worded crimes like “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces.” The law has transformed Hong Kong and its institutions, including schools, the media, the legislature and the courts, chipping away at the territory’s promised autonomy that was meant to be preserved until 2047.
Those charged include Benny Tai, who helped organize the unofficial primary. Tai, a legal scholar and activist who launched protests in 2014 that spiraled into a 79-day occupation of city streets, said that the primary represented a new form of civil disobedience, and hoped the democratic camp would be able to win a majority in the legislature.
The primary, which was held just days after Beijing enacted the new security law, has emerged as an early test of how far the law would go to not only curtail protests — which had fizzled out in the course of the pandemic — but also neutralize any political opposition. Far exceeding expectations, over 600,000 people participated, choosing candidates who were more radical and against any cooperation with Beijing over the more moderate stalwarts of the pro-democracy camp. Those who emerged as winners, including Yuen, Lester Shum, Owen Chow and former legislator Eddie Chu, were among those charged on Sunday.
Others charged include a former journalist, former lawmakers and a nurse who led a medical workers strike in the early days of the pandemic here, pushing for a full border closure with China. Prominent activist Joshua Wong, now serving a jail sentence for a more minor infraction, was also charged. John Clancey, an American priest-turned-lawyer who was arrested as part of the group in January, was not charged, along with a few others.
Chow, who just turned 24, born during the year of Hong Kong’s handover, had a Buddhist mantra tattooed on his arm after learning he would be summoned to the police station on Sunday. He hoped, he said, that it would give him strength in detention.
“Whether we are in the streets, in prison or overseas, hope will always be needed for us to keep fighting this endless battle,” Chow said in brief comments outside the police station. “Good luck to all of you out there.”
Around half a dozen supporters, some crying, hugged the former nursing student before he stepped through the station’s sliding glass doors. There, like the 46 others, officers read out his charge to him, before taking him into detention.