HONG KONG — The Hong Kong police arrested 53 elected pro-democracy officials and activists early Wednesday for their involvement in an informal primary election, the largest roundup yet under the new national security law imposed by Beijing to quash dissent.
The mass arrests — which included figures who had called for aggressive confrontation with the authorities as well as those who had supported more moderate tactics — underscored Hong Kong officials’ efforts to weaken any meaningful opposition in the city’s political institutions. The police also visited the offices of at least one law firm and three news media organizations to demand documents, broadening the burst of arrests that started before sunrise and sent a chill through Hong Kong’s already-demoralized opposition camp.
The moves suggested that the authorities were casting a wide net for anyone who had played a prominent role in opposing the government. The national security law, which the Chinese government imposed in June, has been wielded as a powerful tool to crack down on the fierce anti-Beijing protests that upended the city for months. Since then, the Hong Kong authorities have detained pro-democracy leaders, raided news media offices and ousted opposition lawmakers.
Li Kwai-wah, a senior police superintendent, said at a news conference on Wednesday that about 1,000 police officers had arrested 53 people under the national security law in relation to the primary, including six organizers and 47 participants. They also searched 72 places and froze more than $200,000 in funds related to the effort.
Among those detained were activists, at least 13 former Legislative Council members, an American lawyer who has been involved in the pro-democracy movement and a number of district councilors, a hyperlocal elected position dominated by opposition figures. Before the latest roundup, the police previously arrested dozens of people under the national security law, including Jimmy Lai, the media mogul and founder of Apple Daily, a pro-democracy newspaper.
“This is a total sweep of all opposition leaders,” said Victoria Hui, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame who studies Hong Kong. If running for office and trying to win election are considered subversion, she added, then the security law “is aimed at the total subjugation of Hong Kong people.”
“There should be no expectation of elections in any sense that we know it if and when elections are held in the future,” Ms. Hui said.
With the latest arrest, the government has sharpened its focus on eliminating opposition within the city’s political institutions. Last summer, the government disqualified several pro-democracy candidates from running in the September election for the Legislative Council. Then it postponed the election altogether, citing coronavirus concerns. Many democracy supporters accused officials of trying to prevent an embarrassing loss for the pro-Beijing camp.
A few months later, in November, the government disqualified four pro-democracy incumbents who it said had supported or had been inadequately critical of U.S. sanctions on the city; the remaining opposition members resigned in protest. Last month, civil servants were called upon to pledge their loyalty to Hong Kong.
The arrests on Wednesday heightened the possibility that many of Hong Kong’s best-known pro-democracy politicians would not be able to run in the rescheduled elections this fall, either because they could be in prison or because their arrests would give officials reasons to disqualify them.
John Lee, Hong Kong’s secretary for security, said that the arrested activists, if elected, would try to paralyze Hong Kong’s government and lead the city into a “bottomless abyss.”
“That is why police action today is necessary,” he said at a news conference on Wednesday.
The primary, which was held in July, was organized by the pro-democracy camp in an effort to pare down the number of candidates in the September election. Dozens of opposition candidates had expressed interest in running despite a voting system that gives significant advantages to establishment candidates. The pro-democracy camp, which had a long shot of winning a majority, had wanted to try to ride the momentum created by the landslide defeat of establishment candidates in the 2019 district council elections.
If they had managed to win, many of the opposition candidates had said they planned to use that majority to block the government’s agenda, including vetoing the annual budget. If the budget is vetoed twice, the chief executive would be forced under Hong Kong law to step down.
Government officials had warned that such a plan could be considered subversion under the national security law. “It is wrong to seriously interfere, disrupt or undermine the performance of duties and functions by the central or local governments,” Erick Tsang, Hong Kong’s constitutional affairs minister, said in an interview with pro-Beijing media in July.
One of them, Ng Kin Wai, won a seat on the district council in the 2019 sweep by pro-democracy supporters. In a Facebook Live video streamed by Mr. Ng as the police arrived at his door shortly before 7 a.m., he fumbled to put on a jacket and turn on the light. An officer could be heard saying that he was arresting Mr. Ng on suspicion of “subversion of state power.” The officer said he had “reason to believe” that Mr. Ng had participated in the primary in order to win office and ultimately “force Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resign.”
Mr. Ng was then escorted to his office, which he shares with other district councilors, according to another livestream later posted on his Facebook page. As officers rifled through cubicles, they demanded that employees stop filming.
“If someone is still livestreaming, there will be arrests,” one officer said. “This is disrupting the work of police.”
The Twitter account for Joshua Wong, the former student leader who is one of the most prominent faces of the Hong Kong protests, said that the police had also raided Mr. Wong’s home on Wednesday morning because he had participated in the primary. Mr. Wong is serving more than a year in jail for his role in a 2019 protest, a charge not linked to the national security law. Convictions under the security law can lead to significantly longer sentences.
The police also arrested candidates who had lost their primary races and were less directly involved with the mass protests.
Jeffrey Andrews, a Hong Kong social worker of Indian descent and an advocate for asylum seekers and ethnic minorities, said last year that he had chosen to participate in the primary in part because joining protests had grown too dangerous, particularly for minorities.
“People ask: What’s your stance? Are you a frontline protester? I say no. It’s already difficult for me,” Mr. Andrews said in an interview last year. “It’s a tough thing for minorities to be part of these protests. Look at us. All police have to do is find that one.”
Mr. Andrews, who finished last in his primary, was arrested around 6 a.m., according to a post by the administrator of his Facebook account.
The arrests also extended beyond candidates. The police detained John Clancey, an American lawyer who served as treasurer for a group that helped organize the primaries, and they searched the offices of the firm where he worked, said Jonathan Man, another lawyer at the firm.
Asked by a local news reporter if he had any message for Hong Kongers as he was escorted into a police car, Mr. Clancey, who was walking with a cane, said, “Continue to work for human rights and democracy in Hong Kong.”
The police also arrested Au Nok-hin, a former Legislative Council member who helped organize the primary. He had stepped down from his organizing role after the government warned the effort could amount to subversion.
Police officers also delivered court orders requesting documents to Stand News, Apple Daily and InMedia HK — all news organization seen as supportive of the protest movement. Last year, they raided the offices of Apple Daily, heightening fears of a crackdown on Hong Kong’s independent media outlets.
The arrests prompted swift condemnation from government officials overseas and human rights groups.
Antony Blinken, President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s nominee for secretary of state, wrote on Twitter that the arrests were “an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights.” He said the incoming administration would stand with Hong Kong against Beijing’s crackdown.
Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, and one of Congress’s leading China hawks, said the Chinese government was taking advantage of a “divided and distracted America.” As the arrests unfolded, polls were closing in the Georgia Senate runoffs.
Others called for more concrete action. Nathan Law, a prominent Hong Kong activist who fled to London last year, urged the European Union to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials involved in the arrests.
Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the authorities had removed “the remaining veneer of democracy in the city.”
“Repression generates resistance,” Ms. Wang said in a statement, adding that “millions of Hong Kong people will persist in their struggle for their right to vote and run for office in a democratically elected government.”