Beijing defended the arrest of more than 50 democracy figures in Hong Kong – including a US citizen – on Wednesday as a necessary measure to stop “external forces and individuals” colluding to undermine China.
The only damage was to “the kind of freedom of some external forces and individuals in Hong Kong to collude with each other to attempt to undermine China’s stability and security”, said foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying at a press briefing.
The sweep is the latest salvo in Beijing’s battle to stamp out opposition in the semi-autonomous business hub after millions hit the streets in 2019 with huge and sometimes violent democracy protests.
Police confirmed 53 people – including a US citizen – were arrested for “subversion” in an early morning operation that involved about 1,000 officers.
The charges were sparked by an attempt by opposition groups last year to win a majority in the city’s partially-elected legislature.
Hong Kong’s security chief John Lee described the arrests as “necessary” and aimed at a group of people who tried to “sink Hong Kong into an abyss”.
But the operation sparked a rebuke from Antony Blinken, US president-elect Joe Biden’s pick for Secretary of State, who said authorities were launching “an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights”.
“The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy,” he added.
Those detained represented a broad cross-section of Hong Kong’s opposition, from veteran former pro-democracy lawmakers such as James To, Andrew Wan, Lam Cheuk-ting and Claudia Mo to a host of younger activists.
Among the youth campaigners were Gwyneth Ho, a former journalist turned social activist, district councillor Tiffany Yuen and Jeffrey Andrews, a campaigner known for working with ethnic minorities.
Colleagues of Joshua Wong, one of the city’s most famous democracy activists who is currently in jail, said via his official Facebook account that his home was searched.
John Clancey, an American lawyer working for the firm was arrested on suspicion of subversion, two sources told AFP. It is the first time a US national has been detained under the new law.
A fluent Cantonese speaker and long term Hong Kong resident, Clancey is a veteran legal activist.
“Continue to work for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong,” he told reporters as he was led away by officers.