Skip to main content


Pro-democracy activists who were elected from unofficial pro-democracy primaries, including Joshua Wong, far left, attend a press conference in Hong Kong, July 15, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Kin Cheung

(New York) – The Hong Kong government should not file charges against the 53 pro-democracy politicians arbitrarily arrested on January 6, 2021, Human Rights Watch said today. All were arrested for “subversion” under Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law (NSL), which the Chinese government imposed on June 30, 2020.

The 53 men and women arrested span the spectrum of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. They include veteran politicians and activists, such as Leung “Long Hair” Kwok-hung and Claudio Mo, and newcomers who joined the movement during the 2019 protests. The latter include Jeffrey Andrews, a social worker serving the city’s ethnic minority community, and Lee Chi Yung, a disability rights advocate. Many represent a broad cross-section of grassroots society long excluded from the city’s governance.

“Hong Kong authorities’ claims that discussing candidates and advocating for government action is somehow subversive is ludicrous,” said Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch. “It’s increasingly clear that Beijing’s commitment to Hong Kong’s ‘high degree of autonomy’ isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.”

Hong Kong police said that a public opinion poll conducted in July 2020 regarding pro-democracy candidates for an upcoming Legislative Council (LegCo) election constituted “subversion.” They said those arrested violated article 22 of the National Security Law, which states that anyone who “organizes, plans, commits or participates” in “seriously interfering, disrupting or undermining” the performance of the Hong Kong or central government bodies are subject to a penalty of up to life in prison for “principal offenders.” Among the 53 arrested, police said, six were organizers.

The legal definitions of “subversion” and other NSL crimes are overly broad and vague, and can include the peaceful exercise of human rights, enshrined in Hong Kong’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law. These rights are also protected under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which is incorporated into Hong Kong’s legal framework via the Basic Law and expressed in the Bill of Rights Ordinance.

All but one of those arrested are being released on bail. Charges have yet to be brought against the 53, though they have to surrender their passports as a condition of bail. The prosecution said that Wu Chi-wai, former chairman of the Democratic Party, has kept one of his passports even though he was ordered to surrender his travel documents as part of bail conditions in an earlier case. Wu remains detained.

In addition, the police have frozen HK$1.6 million (US$206,000) in connection with the poll and delivered court warrants to four news organizations that require them to hand over information to the police for investigation. Hong Kong police should release Wu immediately, lift all bail conditions, and return everyone’s travel documents, Human Rights Watch said.

Since the Chinese government imposed the National Security Law in June, the authorities have intimidated and arbitrarily arrested pro-democracy activists, and encouraged people to report on one another to remove pro-democracy figures from key sectors of society, including education, the media, and civil service.

Beijing and the Hong Kong government have also accelerated their assault on the previously semi-democratic LegCo. Since 2016, they have disqualified pro-democracy activists from running for seats or unseated them after they were elected. Following the passage of the National Security Law, the Hong Kong government delayed the September 2020 LegCo elections for a year. Beijing then expelled four pro-democracy members of the legislature, leading other pro-democracy legislators to resign in protest. The arrests of the 53 politicians appears part of Beijing’s increasing actions to exert full control over the LegCo, Human Rights Watch said.

Concerned governments, including the United Kingdom, European Union countries, and the incoming Biden administration in the United States, should press for appointment of a United Nations special mandate holder to monitor and report on Hong Kong’s human rights developments, Human Rights Watch said. They should also impose coordinated targeted sanctions on officials responsible for violating the human rights of people in Hong Kong. Legislators around the world should express solidarity with their Hong Kong counterparts.

“Governments should urgently take concerted and concrete actions to ensure that Beijing pays a price for its escalating abusive behavior,” Wang said. “Standing with Hong Kong’s democrats needs to be more than a rhetorical commitment.”

Your tax deductible gift can help stop human rights violations and save lives around the world.

Region / Country