Twelve candidates, including several prominent democracy advocates, were barred from an upcoming legislative election, and four activists were arrested over online posts.
HONG KONG — Weeks after the Chinese government imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong, raising fears of a broader crackdown on the semiautonomous territory, the city’s authorities have taken aggressive steps against the pro-democracy opposition.
Officials on Thursday barred 12 candidates, including well-known pro-democracy figures, from the September legislative election. The disqualifications came a day after the police made what appeared to be the first targeted arrests of four activists accused of posting pro-independence messages online.
Local news outlets also reported that the government was considering postponing the election by as much as a year because of the coronavirus pandemic, though pro-democracy lawmakers argued it would be a naked attempt to avoid a loss at the polls.
Opposition candidates said they had hoped to ride a wave of protests and public discontent to electoral success on Sept. 6. But they had also acknowledged the fear that the government would disqualify candidates on the nebulous grounds that they would not uphold the Basic Law, the Hong Kong Constitution.
The candidates who said they were barred included Joshua Wong, a prominent activist, and Gwyneth Ho, a former journalist, both of them front-runners in an unofficial democratic primary this month. The list also includes four sitting lawmakers, including members of the moderate, pro-democracy Civic Party.
Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong said it supported the disqualifications. The Hong Kong government said more could follow.
It also said in a statement that grounds for disqualification included advocating Hong Kong’s independence or self-determination, soliciting intervention from foreign governments, expressing an objection in principle to the national security law Beijing imposed last month, or vowing to indiscriminately vote against government proposals.
“The excuse they use is that I describe national security law as a draconian law, which shows that I do not support this sweeping law,” Mr. Wong, 23, wrote on Facebook. “Clearly, Beijing shows a total disregard for the will of the Hongkongers, tramples upon the city’s last pillar of vanishing autonomy and attempts to keep Hong Kong’s legislature under its firm grip.”
Disqualification letters sent to the pro-democracy lawmakers Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwok and Kenneth Leung said their calls for the U.S. to impose sanctions on those responsible for rights abuses in Hong Kong would violate the national security law.
Mr. Yeung and Mr. Kwok said in their reply that their visit to New York last August and a joint letter they sent in September to U.S. senators took place months before the national security law took effect.
Though the security law could not be applied retroactively, election officers said candidates’ past actions and remarks reflected their true intentions.
Mr. Yeung’s disqualification letter also accused him of planning, along with other members of the Civic Party, to “indiscriminately vote down” government proposals. Under the Basic Law, the chief executive must call for a new legislative election if the government cannot pass a budget. If it happens again under a new legislature, the chief executive must step down.
Eric Cheung, a law lecturer at the University of Hong Kong, said he believed lawmakers had the constitutional right to block government proposals and compel the leader to step down. He said the mass disqualifications showed that Hong Kong was growing increasingly similar to mainland China.
“According to the legal system in the mainland, one cannot openly oppose the regime, which is considered to be beyond the limits of free speech,” he said. “Only allowing certain people they find acceptable to run isn’t a free election — it’s what totalitarian governments do.”
The disqualifications came on the heels of the arrests of four people accused of publishing social media posts that called for the city to become independent from China. The sweep on Wednesday was an early indication that the authorities would strictly enforce the new law and crack down on speech that was now considered illegal.
The police said the activists, three men and one woman whose ages range from 16 to 21, were arrested in the New Territories area of Hong Kong for the “publishing of content about secession, and inciting or abetting others for the commission of secession.” Officers seized mobile phones, computers and documents during the roundup.
Li Kwai-wah, a senior superintendent of the Hong Kong police’s new national security department, said the arrests had been made after an organization posted on social media about creating a new party to promote Hong Kong independence. Its “declarations” referred to establishing a “Hong Kong country” and using “all means” to achieve its goals, Mr. Li said.
Mr. Li gave no further information about the organization or about the four people arrested. He said the comments had been posted after the security law took effect, but he would not say whether they had been taken down or elaborate further on their content.
A political organization called Studentlocalism said its former convener, Tony Chung, was among those arrested. When the national security law took effect, the group said it had ended its operations in Hong Kong but that some members would continue to work overseas.
The legislation came into force a month ago and gives the Chinese government broad new powers over the semiautonomous territory. The new law targets subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers, and many of its clauses indicate they were written to curb the protests. For a city that had generally had strong protections for free speech, the legislation represented a drastic shift.
The law had already been cited in the arrests of about a dozen people during several demonstrations, including on July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese control. Human rights groups denounced those street arrests, saying they showed that the authorities intended to use the new powers to clamp down on peaceful activities. The Wednesday arrests, rights groups said, sent another chilling message and raised concerns about a crackdown on activism and political speech in Hong Kong.
“The gross misuse of this draconian law makes clear that the aim is to silence dissent, not protect national security,” said Sophie Richardson, the China director for Human Rights Watch.
Under the new law, Chinese security agencies can now operate openly in Hong Kong. But the Hong Kong police said the arrests had been carried out by its own national security department.
Beijing imposed the security law after more than a year of large protests in Hong Kong, many of which involved violent clashes with the police. The protests were set off by a proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China from Hong Kong, which is guaranteed its own legal system under the terms of the former British colony’s return to Chinese rule in 1997.
The demonstrations evolved to encompass a range of issues, including the police’s use of force and calls for expanding direct elections.
This month, more than 600,000 people participated in a primary for the pro-democracy camp despite warnings from the government that it was possibly illegal. That show of support followed a landslide win for opposition candidates in district council elections in November.
News – Hong Kong Is Keeping Pro-Democracy Candidates Out of Its Election