Emilia Wong and Ventus Lau had cloudy eyes and still in their pajamas when they heard the thud at the door.
At first, the couple mistook the dawn intrusion for an annoying neighbor complaining about their cat, before finally realizing the gravity of the situation.
“I asked for a little time to put on clothes,” said Ms. Wong, 25. “But the police kept knocking on the door and threatened to break in.”
Mr. Lau, 27, was one of the 53 pro-democracy activists, politicians and lawyers arrested in Hong Kong early Wednesday in the biggest purge of opposition figures since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city.
Among the detainees, many of whom were taken in unmarked vans, was John Clancey, a US human rights lawyer, in a crackdown that risks escalating tensions between Beijing and Washington as President-elect Joe Biden is preparing to take office.
But with this week’s detentions, Hong Kong authorities have embarked on a deeper, in-depth operation to wipe out the pro-democracy movement, including civil society groups and the city’s version of city councils, said. analysts.
Critics said the crackdown again undermined Beijing’s promises to maintain guaranteed freedoms and autonomy at the Asian financial hub when it was transferred from the UK to China in 1997. Thousands of foreign companies and banks in the city are worried about the implications of the law for their operations and their staff.
“What they want is to do it. . . oust the pro-democracy camp, ”said Albert Ho, a veteran Hong Kong lawyer and chief of staff to Mr. Clancey. “The storm is coming, it will get bigger.”
The government accused those arrested on Wednesday of trying to ‘subvert’ Chinese state power by holding a first round of voting to choose pro-democracy candidates to participate in an election scheduled for the Council last year. Hong Kong’s de facto parliament. Subversion is punishable by life imprisonment under the new security law.
Activists were seeking to take control of the chamber and force Carrie Lam, the territory’s pro-Beijing executive, to resign, Security Secretary John Lee said. Police have promised to make more arrests.
To lead the campaign against the opposition, which follows the arrests of more than 10,000 people in anti-government protests that erupted in the city in 2019, police set up a division known as the Department “NS”.
But Alan Leong, chairman of the pro-democracy civic party, said the charge of subversion was “an affront to the constitutionally protected Hong Kong people’s voting rights.”
Primary voters numbered 600,000 out of Hong Kong’s total population of 7 million, organizers said – an indication of the depth of support for the pro-democracy movement. Government made arrests even after Legco was elected postponed because of the coronavirus.
Dozens of pro-democracy figures and demonstrators fled abroad to escape the purge. Others, like Mr. Lau, live in fear of a morning visit from officers.
Born to working-class parents and raised in social housing, Mr. Lau is a “localist,” a member of a political movement committed to protecting Hong Kong’s autonomy and culture from the influence of the mainland.
“I’m also afraid of everyone,” said Li Chi-wang, a friend of Mr. Lau’s and a pro-democracy district councilor. Another person involved in the primary said she received panic messages from others who took part in the vote, and said his wife was in tears fearing their arrest.
The legal community was also shaken by the arrest of Mr. Clancey, detained for his role in organizing the poll. Officers escorted the elderly lawyer to his office, known to represent anti-government activists, to gather cases.
“This is the first time that a law firm that assists political activists has been researched in this way,” Ho said.
Hong Kong internationally respected legal system, considered essential to the city’s role as an international financial center, is dotted with foreign lawyers thanks to its colonial origins and common law system. “We are really worried. What happened [on Wednesday] only reinforced those concerns, ”said an expatriate lawyer.
Mr. Clancey was released a day later. But lawyers fear the police will target colleagues who represent opposition figures, as they do in mainland China.
“Hong Kong has not started arresting lawyers for their legal activity per se, but that day seems to be getting closer and closer,” said Jonathan Man, another lawyer in Mr Clancey’s office, who has represented protesters. .
The crackdown may have appeased many members of the opposition. But at Ms. Wong and Mr. Lau’s apartment, the officers who made the arrest did not have their way. A policeman who took a break from rummaging through the couple’s belongings leaned down to pet their cat. The cat apparently responded with a vicious bite.