District councilor Clarisse Yeung was among the 53 people arrested by the police on January 6, 2021. Photo: Facebook, Clarisse Yeung

HONG KONG – The arrest of more than 50 pro-democracy activists on Wednesday will add fuel to the exodus from Hong Kong since Beijing imposed a national security law for the city, a prominent academic predicts.

The impact of the arrests is significant as those rounded up included people from different spectrums in the pro-democracy camp, including moderate democrats, localists and academics, said Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a senior lecturer at the Department of Government and Public Administration at the Chinese University Hong Kong.

Many people lost their remaining confidence in the territory’s systems due to the latest development because they had lost their rights to vote and express their opinions. More people would consider leaving because they felt they were not safe in the city, he said.

Chung Kim-wah, a former Polytechnic University academic and a deputy head of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, said the round-up was aimed to create what he termed as “white terror” in the city.

“This kind of arrest is going to transmit a message to the public that the government is trying to do anything it can, as long as the government can find an excuse. They are trying to do something to scare people away, to make people silent,” said Chung.

On Wednesday morning, about 1,000 police were deployed to arrest 53 people who allegedly violated the national security law. Those arrested were accused of subverting the state’s power by organizing and participating in primaries held by the pro-democracy camp last July for the Legislative Council elections.

Chung, one of the organizers of the primary elections, said the 600,000 voters in the primaries should not be overly concerned as the hard-disk with their personal information had been destroyed.

Senior Superintendent Steve Li from the police’s national security department alleged that those arrested planned to force Carrie Lam to step down as Hong Kong’s chief executive and to paralyze the government.

Ben Chung (front C) of a pro-democracy political group is arrested. He was among 53 opposition figures detained on January 6, 2021. Photo: Peter Parks/AFP

Li said 45 men and eight women aged between 23 and 64 had been arrested. He said six of them had allegedly organized the primaries and the rest were “so-called candidates.”

He said concrete steps had been taken for the pro-democracy camp to secure 35 or more seats in the LegCo so that they could veto the government’s budgets.

This, he claimed, violated Article 22 of the national security law, which covers subverting state power. However, Article 52 of the Basic Law sets out how the chief executive must resign if he or she repeatedly fails to get a budget approved by the legislature.

Li added that the 600,000 people who voted in the primaries would not face criminal investigation due to a lack of evidence.

The police also ordered three local media, which include StandNews, the Apple Daily and inmediahk.net, to hand in the contact numbers of the primaries’ staff within seven days. The Hong Kong Journalists Association said it was deeply concerned by the police demand, which it said would undermine the city’s press freedom.

Security Secretary John Lee said Wednesday, “The suspects in the case had plotted an evil plan to paralyze the special administrative region government.” Those arrested were suspected of subversion, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, he added.

Hong Kong Police Senior Superintendent Steve Li said those arrested planned to paralyze the government. Photo: Anthony Wallace/AFP

“Through a so-called 35-plus plan and 10-step mutual destruction, they plotted to, through their concerted so-called primaries and after getting the majority in Legco, veto the budget no matter what, that was the only thing in their minds,” he said.

The “10-step mutual destruction” was outlined by Benny Tai Yiu-ting, then associate professor at the University of Hong Kong’s law department, in an article last April.

He said the pro-democracy camp should stay united, win more than 35 seats to control the LegCo and veto the government budget twice to trigger the resignation of the chief executive. He predicted chaos in Hong Kong would ultimately result in Western sanctions against the Communist Party of China.

The Liaison Office of the central government in Hong Kong said in a statement that it supported the police’s latest operations. It said the arrests had separated the organizers of the primaries and those who were misled to vote. It said the public should have now clearly seen the “evil intention” of Tai and related people, as well as the damage they caused to society.

That’s not Washington’s view. Antony Blinken, United States president-elect Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of state, described the arrests in a tweet as an “assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights.” He wrote that the incoming “Biden-Harris administration would stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”

Chau Sze-tat, a political commentator and popular YouTuber, said the arrested democrats would probably be unable to take part in the LegCo elections this September while predicting more people, including some district councilors and shop owners who had offered space for the poll, would be arrested.

However, Chau suggested the 600,000 voters in the primaries would not face any instant threat as the operational costs for the police to arrest all of them were high.

A banner supporting the National Security Law is seen in a pro-Beijing rural committee building in Hong Kong on Jan 6, 2021. Photo: Jeff Lau/AFP via Eyepress

Chau opined that police launched the operations on Wednesday because Beijing thought US politicians would be busy with the certification of electoral college votes for the presidential election. He said he remained doubtful whether the Biden administration would be as tough as outgoing President Donald Trump on Hong Kong matters.

He added that Hong Kong people had to choose between staying in the city silently or moving out.

Lau Siu-kai, the vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, said the possibility that the incident would fuel the exodus from the city could not be ruled out. However, he said Beijing would not care too much about such a trend or Western sanctions as it would safeguard national security at any cost.

Read: HK cops arrest 50 for July pro-democracy primaries

Read: Retaliation urged to stem Hong Kong exodus