Benny Tai, centre, a former law professor, was among the pro-democracy activists rounded up by Hong Kong police on Wednesday. John Clancey, an American lawyer, was also arrested © AFP via Getty Images

Emilia Wong and Ventus Lau were bleary eyed and still in their pyjamas when they heard the thumping at the door.

At first, the pair mistook the dawn intrusion for an annoying neighbour complaining about their cat, before they finally registered the gravity of the situation.

“I asked for some time to put on some clothes,” Ms Wong, 25, said. “But the police kept banging on the door and threatened to storm in.”

Mr Lau, 27, was one of 53 pro-democracy activists, politicians and lawyers arrested in Hong Kong early on Wednesday in the largest purge of opposition figures since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city.

Among the detainees, many of whom were taken away in unmarked vans, was John Clancey, an American human rights lawyer, in a crackdown that risks inflaming tensions between Beijing and Washington as president-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office.

Since the law’s introduction in June, police have arrested high-profile opposition figures such as activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow as well as Jimmy Lai, the pro-democracy media tycoon.

But with this week’s detentions, Hong Kong’s authorities have undertaken a deeper, root-and-branch operation to eliminate the pro-democracy movement, including civil society groups and the city’s version of municipal councils, analysts said.

Critics said the crackdown again undermined Beijing’s promises to maintain the freedoms and autonomy guaranteed to the Asian financial hub on its 1997 handover from the UK to China. Thousands of foreign companies and banks in the city are worried about the law’s implications for their operations and staff.

“What they want to do is to . . . squeeze out the pro-democracy camp,” Albert Ho, a veteran Hong Kong lawyer and the head of Mr Clancey’s firm, said. “The storm is coming, it will become bigger.”

The government has accused those arrested on Wednesday of attempting to “subvert” Chinese state power by organising a primary runoff to choose pro-democracy candidates to contest an election scheduled for last year for the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s de facto parliament. Subversion is punishable with up to life in prison under the new security law.

Agnes Chow was one of the high-profile activists arrested in an earlier crackdown © AP

The activists were seeking to win control of the chamber and force Carrie Lam, the territory’s pro-Beijing chief executive, to resign, security secretary John Lee said. Police have vowed to make more arrests.

To spearhead the campaign against the opposition, which follows the arrests of more than 10,000 people in connection with anti-government protests that erupted in the city in 2019, the police have set up a division known as the “NS” department.

But Alan Leong, chairman of the pro-democracy Civic party, said the accusation of subversion was “an affront to the constitutionally protected rights to vote of Hong Kong people”.

According to organisers, voters in the primary numbered 600,000 out of Hong Kong’s total population of 7m — an indication of the depth of support for the pro-democracy movement. The government carried out the arrests even after the Legco election had been postponed because of coronavirus.

Scores of pro-democracy figures and protesters have fled overseas to escape the purge. Others, such as Mr Lau, live in fear of an early morning visit from officers.

Born to working class parents and raised in public housing, Mr Lau is a “localist”, part of a political movement committed to protecting Hong Kong’s autonomy and culture from mainland influence.

“I am as frightened as everyone,” said Li Chi-wang, a friend of Mr Lau and a pro-democracy district councillor. Another person who was involved in the primary spoke of receiving panicked messages from others who took part in the vote, and said his wife was in tears fearing their arrest.

The legal community was also shaken by the arrest of Mr Clancey, who was detained for his part in organising the poll. Officers escorted the elderly lawyer to his firm’s office, which is known for representing anti-government activists, to gather files.

“This is the first time that a law firm that has been helping political activists has been subject to search in this way,” Mr Ho said.

Hong Kong’s internationally respected legal system, seen as essential to the city’s role as an international financial centre, is dotted with foreign lawyers thanks to its colonial origins and common law system. “We are really concerned. What happened [on Wednesday] only strengthened those concerns,” a senior expatriate lawyer said.

Mr Clancey was released a day later. But lawyers fear police could target colleagues who represent opposition figures, as they do in mainland China.

“Hong Kong hasn’t started arresting lawyers for their legal activity per se but that day seems ever closer,” said Jonathan Man, another lawyer at Mr Clancey’s firm, who has represented protesters.

The crackdown may have quietened many in the opposition. But at Ms Wong and Mr Lau’s flat, the arresting officers did not have it all their way. A policeman who took a break from rifling through the pair’s belongings reached down to pet their cat. The cat apparently responded with a vicious bite.

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