Hong Kong police have said 53 people were arrested on Wednesday for trying to use strategic voting to secure a legislative majority, with an ultimate goal of shutting down the government, which they deemed as subversive behaviour under the Beijing-enacted national security law.

Dozens of pro-democracy figures – including ex-lawmakers and district councillors – were arrested for organising or participating in last July’s primary election for the now-postponed 2020 Legislative Council election.

Steve Li. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

It was the largest national security round-up since the controversial legislation was imposed on the semi-autonomous region on June 30, 2020.

Senior superintendent Steve Li of the new police national security unit said at a press conference that police mobilised 1,000 officers as 45 men and eight women, aged 23 to 64, were apprehended. Officers searched 72 premises with a warrant and issued an “order to make material available” to four companies for information related to the case. They also froze HK$1.6 million in connection to the poll.

Using a flowchart, Li said the proposal to use strategic voting to win over 35 seats in the legislature first emerged in March last year. He said the proponent, without naming activist Benny Tai, intended to “handicap government” by using a legislative majority to veto government budgets twice, which he said would push the chief executive to resign and force the government into a shutdown.

Li said the proposer – who he described as “very determined and resourceful” – put forward details to implement the plan in a “ten steps to mutual destruction” a month later. The individual launched a crowd-funding campaign in June, followed by the primary election in mid-July. Police investigations showed organisers of the polls gave funding to the participants, ranging from HK$4,000 to HK$290,000.

Democrats arrested. From L to R: Wu Chi-wai, Lester Shum, Gwyneth Ho, Alvin Yeung, James To, Kwok Ka-ki, Lam Cheuk-ting, Eddie Chu, Ventus Lau, Benny Tai, Raymond Chan, Leung Kwok-hung.

Such aims amounted to subversion, Li said, referring to sub-section three of Article 22 of the national security law. The provision stipulates that anyone who organises, plans, commits or participates in seriously interfering, disrupting or undermining the a body of the HKSAR or central authorities with a view to subverting state power shall be guilty of an offence.

“Even after July 1 – the enactment of the national security law – they insisted to hold the primaries… some of the participants, after the primaries, said they will [continue] their commitment to reject all the budgets. It is subversive for their own behaviour,” the senior superintendent said.

The “ten steps to mutual destruction” was put forward by former law professor Tai who was an organiser of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. The pro-democracy figure wrote in an article for Apple Daily detailing a timeline of events for Hong Kong to “jump off the cliff” with the Chinese Communist Party.

Democratic camp’s primary election in July 2020. Photo: Studio Incendo.

In June, a group of pro-democracy election hopefuls signed a joint statement pledging they would use the LegCo’s power to veto budget bills to compel the chief executive to respond to the 2019 protest movement’s demands.

Li said police operation targeted individuals who were involved in a “strategic and systematic” plan to disrupt the government, while the 610,000 citizens who cast ballots in the primaries would not face criminal investigation by the force.

According to local media reports, at least three news organisations were asked to hand over documents to police following the mass arrests. Li refused to disclose what materials the force requested, but said it was not journalistic materials.

“I cannot discuss precisely what materials we required from the media, from the company, but I can confirm that all the information we required is not involving the journalistic materials. It is just for investigating some connection between the plan and institute,” he said.

Li declined to confirm whether American lawyer John Clancey, who served as the treasurer for political group Power for Democracy during the primary election last year, was among the dozens arrested. Clancey was the first foreigner, without Hong Kong citizenship, to be arrested under the law.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, foreign interference and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to public transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China.

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Kelly Ho

Kelly Ho has an interest in local politics, education and sports. She formerly worked at South China Morning Post Young Post, where she specialised in reporting on issues related to Hong Kong youth. She has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration.