HONG KONG — More than a dozen leading pro-democracy activists and former lawmakers in Hong Kong were arrested on Saturday in connection with the protests that raged in the city last year, the biggest roundup of prominent opposition figures in recent memory.
The arrests signaled a broader crackdown on the antigovernment movement that roiled the semiautonomous city last year, one of the most significant challenges to Communist Party rule in decades. Beijing and pro-government supporters in the city have called for lawmakers to pass national security laws that residents worry would allow the mainland authorities to further encroach upon the territory’s civic freedoms.
The arrests, along with a renewed push for national security legislation, could anger protesters and reinvigorate mass demonstrations that have tapered off as the city confronts the coronavirus pandemic.
The mass arrests of democratic heavyweights included the veteran lawyers Martin Lee and Margaret Ng, the media tycoon Jimmy Lai and the former opposition legislators Albert Ho, Lee Cheuk-yan and Leung Kwok-hung, political parties and aides said.
Fifteen activists between 24 and 81 years old were rounded up on suspicion of organizing, publicizing or taking part in several unauthorized assemblies between August and October and will face prosecution, the police said on Saturday without disclosing their names, following protocol.
While opposition politicians have been included among the thousands of protest-related arrests over the past year, rarely have so many prominent pro-democracy figures been arrested at once.
Lau Siu-kai, vice president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a powerful Beijing advisory group, said that the arrests on Saturday represented an early step toward a broader crackdown by Beijing on the Hong Kong opposition.
The arrests reflect an assessment by Beijing that protests in Hong Kong over the past year pose such a threat to national security that it is worthwhile to defy American threats of retaliation if a crackdown takes place, he said.
“Now Beijing is calling the U.S.’s bluff and taking the initial steps against the Hong Kong opposition, and there will be more steps to shrink their space,” said Mr. Lau, who was also a senior Hong Kong government official in the years immediately after Britain’s return of the city to Chinese sovereignty.
A Communist Party gathering late last year in Beijing, the so-called fourth plenum, set a new tone for policy in Hong Kong that will be carried out this year, Mr. Lau said. “This is the time to end the chaos in Hong Kong,” he said. “After the fourth plenum, Beijing is determined to end the chaos in Hong Kong once and for all.”
The arrests followed calls from China’s central government in recent days for Hong Kong to enact a package of national security laws that was last put forward in 2003, but shelved after a mass protest.
Luo Huining, Beijing’s top representative in Hong Kong, said this past week that national security has always been a “prominent shortcoming” since the former British colony’s return to Chinese control in 1997. He called for urgent work on the “legal system and enforcement mechanism to safeguard national security,” a contentious issue in the city.
Legal experts and critics of Beijing have warned against perceived increased interference in Hong Kong’s local affairs by the Chinese government. The central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong has recently criticized filibustering by pro-democracy legislators, raising concerns that it was violating the “one country, two systems” principle.
The Hong Kong Bar Association called on the Chinese authorities to exercise restraint and said the comments by Beijing’s representatives “could easily be perceived as interference” in contravention of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the local Constitution. Late Friday the liaison office responded that as Beijing’s designated representative in the city, the prohibitions on departments of China’s central government interfering in Hong Kong affairs did not apply.
The high-profile arrests were made as Hong Kong, already rocked by last year’s demonstrations, battled to contain the coronavirus outbreak, which has helped quiet down the huge street protests but fueled further distrust of the authorities.
“When all countries are now busy combating #coronavirus, the authoritarian regime of #China is now clamping down on democracy movements in #HongKong,” tweeted Joshua Wong, a well-known pro-democracy activist in the city.
“Today’s arrests of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong is another nail in the coffin of ‘one country, two systems,’” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, referring to the principle that promises Hong Kong’s local government a high degree of autonomy. “It seems Hong Kong officials will further enable abuses rather than defend Hong Kong people’s rights,” she added.
Some of those arrested on Saturday represented an older generation of pro-democracy figures who advocated peaceful methods even as the protests grew increasingly violent last year, and to some extent were dismissed by younger activists as too moderate. Convictions could bar some of them from seeking office this year, when Hong Kong holds legislative elections in September.
Mr. Lee, 81, is often called the “Father of Democracy” in Hong Kong, and helped draft the Basic Law in the 1980s. He has long represented activists in court, and said on Saturday after he was released on bail that he had “no regrets” in joining them as a defendant himself.
“I am proud to finally have a chance to continue on this path to democracy with these fine young people of Hong Kong,” he said.
Ms. Ng, who like Mr. Lee is also a former lawmaker, was photographed carrying a copy of a recent book titled “China National Security: Endangering Hong Kong’s Rule of Law?” as she entered the police station.
Mr. Lai, 72, a media baron who publishes a popular pro-democracy newspaper and is known for his ardent opposition to China, is already facing charges on allegations of participating in another protest and intimidating a reporter from a rival pro-Beijing outlet.
More than 7,000 demonstrators have been arrested since June, as protests calling for greater democracy and police accountability increasingly spiraled into violent clashes with riot officers.
Keith Bradsher contributed reporting from Beijing, and Ezra Cheung from Hong Kong.