The arrestees were rounded up for allegedly committing subversion, a violation of the national-security law imposed last year by Chinese authorities and an offense that carries the possibility of a life sentence. They allegedly took part, to varying extents, in an unofficial primary election held last summer by prodemocracy groups. The primary was part of a plan based on laam caau, an idea adopted by the most fervent protesters that roughly translates to “burn with us,” a philosophy of mutual destruction meant to punish Beijing. China’s intention appears to be different: to reshape Hong Kong’s political system into one that maintains the veneer of a democracy, which sets the city apart from the mainland, but is completely devoid of meaningful opposition, eliminating the unwanted surprises and embarrassing public rebukes of the past two years.
Those taken spanned the political spectrum, and generations of Hong Kong’s prodemocracy movement. They included an American lawyer, a social worker, and dozens of younger, more radical activists who rose to prominence during the 2019 protests. Officers from the police’s national-security unit also visited the newsrooms of three media outlets, demanding that staff turn over materials to authorities within a week, and raided the office of a well-known law firm. No longer satisfied with simply stifling Hong Kong’s boisterous opposition, the authorities have sought to eradicate the prodemocracy camp and anyone even loosely affiliated with it. The future of Hong Kong’s already stunted democratic system looks gravely imperiled.
Read: A newsroom at the edge of autocracy
The breadth of the authorities’ response today pointed to the surprising success of what at first appeared to be a wildly optimistic effort to sustain Hong Kong’s democracy effort. The primary contest, organized by the former law professor Benny Tai, was meant to select candidates who would then run in legislative elections scheduled for last September. Tai, who was instrumental in coordinating the 2014 Umbrella Movement and was subsequently jailed for his role, envisioned prodemocracy candidates taking their struggle inside the halls of power by winning a majority of seats in an assembly whose electoral system heavily favors Beijing’s preferred candidates. They could then use their newfound power to upend the legislative process, possibly forcing the city’s chief executive to resign. If Beijing interfered, or used the chief executive to do so, the fallacy of the “one country, two systems” framework under which Hong Kong is governed would be on full display.
The idea was bold, but prodemocracy figures were coming off a resounding victory in local elections months prior and the government—in Hong Kong as well as in Beijing—continued to ignore many demands and renege on promises. Over a sweltering weekend in July, people waited for hours at businesses that had been turned into temporary polling stations—a budget lingerie shop, sympathetic restaurants, and a vintage bus among them—to cast their ballots. The event was orderly and ran without a hitch, factors that perhaps made it more alarming to authorities, running counter to the image they had hoped to portray of protesters as a motley crew of violent, foreign-funded radicals intent on destroying the city.