Police in Hong Kong have arrested five activists, including Catholic Cardinal Joseph Zen and Canadian-Hong Kong pop star Denise Ho, alleging they colluded with foreign forces to endanger China’s national security.
All five were trustees of the now-defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, set up to support people facing prosecution stemming from 2019 pro-democracy protests. The five face charges under the national-security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in 2020.
Also arrested were former opposition lawmakers Margaret Ng and Cyd Ho, according to local media, as well as academic Hui Po Keung, who was detained as he was about to catch a flight to Germany.
Both Cardinal Zen and Denise Ho were later released on bail.
Benedict Rogers, the chief executive of the U.K.-based Hong Kong Watch, condemned the arrests in a statement, saying the trustees “supposed crime was funding legal aid for pro-democracy protesters back in 2019.”
“Today’s arrests signal beyond a doubt that Beijing intends to intensify its crackdown on basic rights and freedoms in Hong Kong,” Mr. Rogers said.
“We urge the international community to shine a light on this brutal crackdown and call for the immediate release of these activists.”
The 612 fund was established to help the mainly young protesters arrested amid the unrest that first broke out over a proposed extradition bill and spiralled into wider, often violent anti-government protests.
Between 2019 and 2021, the fund supported defendants in almost 950 cases and distributed 243 million Hong Kong dollars ($40-million) in donations. But after the imposition of the national-security law and subsequent crackdown on the pro-democracy opposition, the trustees announced plans to shut it down in late 2021, citing the “current political environment.”
Soon after, police revealed they were investigating the fund and demanded that its administrators “furnish relevant information in connection with investigation of offences endangering national security.”
Those arrested Wednesday are icons of the pro-democracy movement, with long records of peaceful activism.
A former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Zen is one of the most senior Catholics in Asia. He has long been outspoken on political and religious freedom, both in Hong Kong and mainland China, and was a regular sight at pro-democracy marches.
The 90-year-old’s arrest may complicate relations between the Vatican and Beijing, which have gradually improved in recent years after a decades-long dispute over the ordination of bishops. The two sides reached a deal – one that Cardinal Zen was highly critical of – in 2018 that Pope Francis said would “help to heal the wounds of the past.”
Sam Goodman, the advocacy director at Hong Kong Watch, said he hoped “the Vatican will not only condemn the arrest of Cardinal Zen and call for his release alongside the other activists, but will reconsider its silence regarding the ongoing human-rights violations in Hong Kong and China more broadly.”
In a press release, the Vatican said on Wednesday it had learned of the arrest of Cardinal Zen in Hong Kong “with concern” and was following developments “with extreme attention.”
Both Ms. Ng and Denise Ho were arrested late last year in connection with the now-defunct Stand News, which was forced to close after its editors and managers were arrested, one of several news organizations shuttered in the wake of the national-security law.
Denise Ho, a Cantopop star and LGBTQ icon, has dual citizenship. When she was detained in December, Global Affairs Canada said it was “deeply concerned,” and politicians across the spectrum spoke out to demand her release.
This week’s crackdown follows the confirmation Sunday of former security chief John Lee as the next chief executive of Hong Kong. He ran unopposed in a rubber-stamp election, selected by members of a Beijing-approved committee representing 0.02 per cent of the city’s 7.4 million people.
Many fear that Mr. Lee, who will officially be sworn in on July 1, when Hong Kong marks 25 years of Chinese rule since the British handover in 1997, will expand the crackdown. He has said that passing new legislation targeting sedition will be a key priority of his government.
In a statement Monday, Canada joined other G7 countries in voicing its “grave concern over the selection process for the chief executive in Hong Kong as part of a continued attempt to undermine political pluralism and fundamental freedoms.”
“We are deeply concerned about this steady erosion of political and civil rights and Hong Kong’s autonomy,” the G7 foreign ministers said in a joint statement.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.