Dozens of leading democratic activists have been arrested in Hong Kong on suspicion of violating the city's controversial security law in the biggest crackdown since Beijing imposed the law in 2020.
The dawn swoop of the most prominent pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong was tied to an unofficial, independently organised vote in July 2020 to select opposition candidates for a since-postponed legislative election.
As part of the operation, police also searched the offices of a pollster and a law firm and went to the offices of media outlets Apple Daily, Stand News, and Inmediahk.
The mass arrests, confirmed by the Democratic Party and individual social media accounts of dozens of other activists and politicians arrested, will further raise alarm that Hong Kong has taken a swift authoritarian turn.
The crackdown since the June 2020 imposition of the new security law, which critics say crushes wide-ranging freedoms, places China further on a collision course with the United States just as Joe Biden prepares to take over the presidency.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Biden's pick for secretary of state Antony Blinken said on Twitter the arrests were "an assault on those bravely advocating for universal rights."
"The Biden-Harris administration will stand with the people of Hong Kong and against Beijing’s crackdown on democracy."
The arrests, which local media said amounted to more than 50 former lawmakers, activists and people involved in organising the 2020 primary, included James To, Lam Cheuk-ting, Benny Tai and Lester Shum.
At the time, the local government and Beijing warned the unprecedented unofficial vote may violate the new law, saying a campaign to win a majority in Hong Kong's 70-seat legislature with the purpose of blocking government proposals to increase pressure for democratic reforms could be seen as subversive.
That reasoning was cited by police when making the Wednesday arrests, according to the Democratic Party's Facebook page and other social media accounts of those arrested.
Police did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The legislative election was due in September last year but was postponed, with authorities citing coronavirus risks. It is unclear who could run for the opposition in any future polls following the mass arrests.
Maya Wang, senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the raids and arrests showed Chinese authorities were now "removing the remaining veneer of democracy in the city".
Local media said the police operation included searches of the offices of the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI) which helped organise the primaries. The organisers destroyed the data of the more than 600,000 people who voted immediately after ending the count.
Public broadcaster RTHK said American lawyer John Clancey was arrested during a raid of law firm Ho, Tse, Wai & Partners.