London — Hong Kong pro-democracy politician Nathan Law, who lives in exile in the U.K., told CBS News on Wednesday that, had he not fled the city last year, he would have been among dozens of politicians and activists arrested in China’s latest, “utterly absurd” crackdown under the guises of a new “national security” law.
The arrests of 53 pro-democracy politicians and activists overnight was the biggest action under China’s new national security law since its passage by Beijing last year. The new law was created to quash dissent in the semi-autonomous territory, which, despite being part of China, had a different system of government that guaranteed fundamental freedoms.
“It’s definitely devastating for me. A lot of people who are arrested are my friends. I’m actually on the list. If I were to be in Hong Kong, I would be arrested just a couple hours ago,” Law said.
The dozens of people arrested were accused of plotting the “mutual destruction” of China and Hong Kong via their participation in an unofficial primary election to narrow down pro-democracy opposition candidates to run for seats on the territory’s legislative council (LegCo). If elected to the council, these candidates could potentially have influenced or blocked laws passed down from Beijing.
Law called the government’s explanation that by trying to get elected the detainees were attempting to block the government’s operations, “utterly absurd, because in any normal and democratic system, we’ve got checks and balances, and the council’s duty is to hold the administrative branch accountable with the measures, including blocking their bills.”
“That is actually part of the function and the power of the system,” he said. “But the government sees it as a subversion act.”
He said the world would have to “wait and see” whether all 53 individuals arrested on Wednesday would actually face prosecution.
“There’s still pending questions whether this is a genuine prosecution to all… or just targeting a few of them” believed to be the masterminds of the political unrest Hong Kong has seen over the last year.
Among those who Law fears could face tougher penalties is prominent politician Joshua Wong, who, although he’s been jailed since early December , could see his sentence increased.
The mass arrests were also the first time that a foreigner has been detained under the new national security law. American human rights lawyer John Clancey, who had had been involved in pro-democracy work in Hong Kong, was among those taken into custody.
“That is definitely a big blow,” Law said. “I think the U.S. government should be very concerned with the case, and that it’s possibly another variant of hostage diplomacy from Beijing.”
Law urged the U.S. government and wider international community to hold China accountable, and he urged the European Union to halt an EU-China investment pact.
“None of us should take these freedoms for granted. Even in the U.S., around the world, if we are not vigilant enough, they will be taken away very, very quickly,” Law said.
He said that for himself and other Hong Kongers, who for decades had “the taste of freedom… losing it is a huge blow, and its impact is larger than if you’re pursuing something that you have never had.”
“I think that really gives momentum to people who are still a diaspora community and have left Hong Kong, or even stayed in Hong Kong, to have that faith of fighting for it, even though the situation is getting more and more difficult.”