Hong Kong police arrested 53 pro-democracy officials and activists on Wednesday, in the largest crackdown on opposition figures since China implemented new national security laws on the territory in May.
The national security laws form part of China’s attempt to exert greater authority over Hong Kong, a former British colony that retained autonomy from the mainland since the U.K. relinquished its rule in 1996. Hong Kong was wracked by protests in 2019 against perceived Chinese encroachment on the territory’s autonomy, however China has since cracked down on dissent and opposition to its rule.
The Wednesday arrests are a “blatant attempt to intimidate pro-democracy activists and warn people not to engage in politics and collaboration,” Emily Lau, a former chairperson in the city’s Democratic Party, told the Wall Street Journal.
Hong Kong Secretary for Security John Lee said those arrested were plotting to win 35 or more seats in Hong Kong’s legislature, which would allow them to veto the city budget and remove Chief Executive Carrie Lam from power. Lee termed it “an organized plan that would plunge Hong Kong into an abyss.”
Antony Blinken, incoming secretary of state for president-elect Joe Biden, expressed support for the detainees in a Twitter post.
“The sweeping arrests of pro-democracy demonstrators are an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights,” Blinken wrote. “The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy.”
Hong Kong authorities have already conducted arrests of protesters and pro-democracy figures, including media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who published a pro-democracy newspaper.