HONG KONG - With the roundup of more than 50 pro-democracy activists and their supporters this week, Hong Kong has thrown off the last restraints on who can be targeted under China's harsh new security law and for what reasons, human rights advocates say.
Even so, at least some of the activists will continue to defy the rapid erosion of the broad political autonomy that had been promised the Chinese territory, said Benny Tai, a law professor and one of the highest-profile figures to have been arrested in the Wednesday sweep.
"Hong Kong has entered a severe winter," Tai told reporters upon his release Thursday after 42 hours in police custody. "The wind is blowing fierce and cold. But I believe many Hong Kongers will continue to walk against the wind in their own way."
A total of 53 pro-democracy political figures were arrested for their contributions to Hong Kong's unofficial primary elections, held to pick opposition candidates ahead of the now-postponed 2020 elections. The opposition party primaries took place in July of last year and attracted more than 600,000 voters.
At the time, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam warned that the primary elections might have violated the law, by "subverting state power."
The Chinese Communist Party imposed the new security legislation on Hong Kong in response to widespread pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019. The law has been broadly interpreted by authorities and violations include secession and subversion. The potential for harsh punishments under the law has all but ended any street protests.
Even before Wednesday's roundup, the law had been used to detain some of Hong Kong's most highly visible critics of the Beijing-backed local government.
Pro-democracy figurehead Jimmy Lai, 73, was returned to prison on New Year's Eve following a desperate attempt from his lawyers to secure his release.
Prominent activist Joshua Wong is serving 13.5 months behind bars for unlawful assembly during a protest in 2019. And Wong wasn't spared during this week's crackdown. On Thursday, while still in prison, he was newly arrested under the national security law, according to his social media account.
Approximately 1,000 officers were deployed for the roundup, which netted not only activists but also others with links with the pro-democracy camp, including a veteran U.S human rights lawyer.
John Clancey served as a treasurer of political group Power of Democracy, which was involved in the primary elections. Clancey is the first foreigner to be arrested under the national security law but was released pending further investigation.
Others held in police custody included hopeful political candidates, a former journalist and a medical worker. It was even reported that national security officers asked Hong Kong news outlets to hand over information regarding primary election candidates.
Political analyst Joseph Cheng said, "Chinese authorities no longer tolerate an effective opposition" and Lam's administration "enjoys no legitimacy" amid the unrest in the city.
"Those arrested included almost the entire political spectrum of the local democracy movement. They had planned to exert pressure on the Carrie Lam administration, they intended to make use of the provisions of the Basic Law, now they are accused of violating the National Security Law," Cheng told VOA.
"The search of media and poll organizations are especially worrying," Cheng added.
U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee Lead Republican and China Task Force Chairman Michael McCaul slammed the arrests in Hong Kong.
"Persecuting these individuals for simply attempting to win elections and defend the liberty of their fellow Hong Kongers is unspeakable and unjustifiable," McCaul's statement read.
But Hong Kong's secretary of security, John Lee, said those arrested had been trying to "overthrow" the city's government and that it will not tolerate "subversive acts," according to reports.
The Hong Kong government released a statement confirming that the arrests were based largely on suspicions of "subversion" — one of the law's specified infringements.
"The police took action specifically targeting active players who organized, planned, committed or participated in acts of subversion, and arrested over 50 persons today [January 6] in accordance with the law. These persons are suspected to have violated the offense of subversion under the National Security Law," the statement said.
But Lo Kin Hei, chairman of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong, said he believes the national security law and its identification of violations like subversion, have become a "universal key" enabling authorities to arrest virtually anyone at will.
"The police on the street used the national security law to warn you," he said in an interview. "You hold up a blank paper and they say that you violate the national security law. You chant a slogan, and they say you violate the national security law. You hold primaries and elections, and they say you violate the national security law.
"What everyone sees will be white terror, and this is exactly what the Hong Kong government wants to create," Hei added.
Political commentator Derek Yuen believes the timing of the latest crackdown was related to the imminent change of administration in the United States.
"I think Beijing wanted to complete these big moves before [President-elect Joe] Biden takes office. Since it decided to use the law as soon as possible, to make it a deterrent effect as soon as possible, and in some cases, it will try to get it done before Biden takes office," Yuen told VOA.
Veteran activist Lee Cheuk Yan, who admitted he's likely to face jail over outstanding charges for unlawful assembly, earlier predicted the clampdown on Hong Kong would be unabated this year.
"Everyone is under threat. Those who stand out for democracy will be under threat," Lee said.