Police arrested 47 of the city's best known dissidents on Sunday for "conspiracy to commit subversion" in the broadest use yet of a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on the city a year ago.
Prosecutors had argued in court that the defendants were involved in a "massive and well-organized scheme to subvert the Hong Kong government" by organizing and participating in an unofficial primary election last July.
Even though such arrests have already marginalised the pro-democracy camp, China wants to exert greater control over a voting process largely unchanged since 1997, and is still afraid of democrats winning a majority in the legislature at the next election, said the person briefed on the electoral reform plan.
The 39 men and eight women, aged between 23 and 64, are scheduled to appear before West Kowloon Magistracy on Monday. He told reporters after having his bail extended Sunday that he was asked to report to the police again in early May.
John Clancey, an American lawyer and long-time Hong Kong resident who was with the initial group arrested, was one of the few not charged on Sunday.
The security law criminalizes acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign powers to intervene in Hong Kong's affairs. The 2019 victory for democracy advocates in 17 of 18 local district councils gave the opposition around 117 seats on that committee, giving them a better chance of blocking Beijing's choice to lead the city.
Many were dressed in black, the colour associated with the 2019 anti-government protests, while some chanted: "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times", and: "Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong".
The charges come less than a week after the Hong Kong government moved to introduce new requirements for public officials, including that they swear loyalty oaths and embrace Beijing's rule over the city.
Hong Kong is a part of China, and its affairs are China's internal affairs that allow no interference from foreign countries, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a daily news conference.
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Since the shooting, Mya Thweh Thweh Khine has become a symbol of the protests, which have intensified over the past two weeks. She is under house arrest, accused of possessing illegal walkie-talkies and violating the country's Natural Disaster Law.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the 47 to be released immediately. "The nature of these charges makes clear that legitimate political pluralism will no longer be tolerated in Hong Kong", the EU Office said in a statement.
Why punish a primary election?Such contests are a normal function in democracies around the world, during which political parties select the strongest candidates for an election. At the time of the Hong Kong vote, the United States Democratic primary, which Biden won, was still ongoing.
Chinese and Hong Kong officials say the primary was an attempt to overthrow the government.
The spokesman pointed out that the USA has dozens of pieces of legislation concerning its own national security, yet it practices double standards in opposing the National Security Law for Hong Kong, which exposes its hypocrisy.
It has radically transformed semi-autonomous Hong Kong's relationship with the authoritarian mainland and outlawed much dissent in the once free-wheeling finance hub.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab warned in January that the British government "will not look the other way when the rights and the autonomy of the people of Hong Kong are trashed".
Hong Kong's British National (Overseas) passport holders can now apply for a special visa giving them the right to work and study in the United Kingdom for up to five years, after which they will be able to apply for settlement, and seek citizenship after a further year.