This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
The charging of 47 democracy activists and opposition politicians with “subversion” in Hong Kong under a draconian national security law imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) sparked an international outcry on Monday, amid calls for their immediate release.
“The decision to charge 47 Hong Kong politicians & activists for subversion under the [law] is deeply disturbing,” U.K. foreign secretary Dominic Raab said in a statement on Monday.
“It shows in the starkest terms the [law is] being used to eliminate political dissent rather than restore order, contrary to what the Chinese Government promised,” Raab said.
Washington was also quick to condemn the move, which has left almost all of the city’s prominent pro-democracy figures and social activists either behind bars or in exile.
“We condemn the detention of and charges filed against pan-democratic candidates in Hong Kong’s elections and call for their immediate release,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement as the defendants appeared in court.
“Political participation and freedom of expression should not be crimes. The U.S. stands with the people of Hong Kong,” Blinken said via his official Twitter account.
Australian foreign minister Marise Payne said the 47 defendants — who are being charged with “subversion” for taking part in a democratic primary in July 2020 — “were peacefully exercising their rights.”
The German foreign ministry called on the Hong Kong authorities to release the defendants and schedule postponed elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo) “in a fair & democratic manner.”
Hong Kong-based British diplomat Jonathan Williams told journalists outside the court on Monday that the law was certainly not being used in its narrowest sense.
“The Chinese and Hong Kong authorities promised that the national security law would be used in a very narrow sense. and it’s clear that that is no longer the case,” Williams said.
Hak-yin Li, associate professor at the Institute for International Strategy at Tokyo International University, agreed.
“Most of the democratic camp have been arrested now, and it looks as if the entire political system, including the District Council, LegCo, and the elections for chief executive are going to change,” Li told RFA.
“What this means is that no political opposition to Beijing or the central government will be tolerated in future.”
Sweeping changes seen
Media reports have indicated that the CCP is getting ready to make sweeping changes to elections in Hong Kong at the National People’s Congress (NPC) annual session, which opens this week in Beijing.
“Foreign officials are predicting that Hong Kong’s political system will get even less liberal now that these democrats have been arrested,” Li said. “That’s why they are making strong statements about democracy in Hong Kong now.”
Kenneth Chan, associate professor in political science at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the international community is witnessing wave upon wave of assaults on the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong.
“There is nothing normal or natural about the situation in Hong Kong right now, so they are expressing their concern,” Chan said.
He said Williams’ presence at the arraignment hearing on Monday was significant.
“In the past, even though they may have had major concerns about the number of public order cases linked to protests, they probably still had some confidence in the independence and rationality of the courts,” Chan said.
“Today, I think there is far more attention being paid to just how much autonomy the courts have when handling national security cases,” he said.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch has described the law as “Beijing’s most aggressive assault on Hong Kong people’s freedoms since the transfer of sovereignty in 1997.”
The law provides for sentences ranging up to life imprisonment for words or actions deemed seditious, secessionist, or subversive by the authorities, including public criticism of the governments of Hong Kong and China and overseas lobbying or fund-raising.