HONG KONG — The Hong Kong authorities charged dozens of pro-democracy figures on Sunday with violating the Chinese territory’s harsh new national security law, the latest blow to the dwindling hopes for democracy in the former British colony.
It was the most forceful use yet of the wide-ranging security law, which has cemented Communist Party control over a territory long known for its individual freedoms, independent court system and rule of law.
Before Sunday, only a handful of people had been formally charged with violating the security law, though about 100 have been arrested on suspicion of doing so. Those convicted of violating the law can be sentenced to life in prison.
The police said that each of the 47 people had been charged with a single count of “conspiracy to commit subversion.” They include Benny Tai, a former University of Hong Kong law professor and leading strategist for the pro-democracy camp.
Lester Shum, an activist, was also charged. He said the road to Sunday’s arrests had begun with the mass antigovernment protests that convulsed the city in 2019.
“We have long before decided that we would not bow to authoritarianism,” he said. “I hope that everyone will carry this decision in the very difficult days ahead.”
The charges filed on Sunday are the latest escalation in the Chinese government’s efforts to bring Hong Kong firmly under control. Its tightening grip sparked the 2019 protests, which included peaceful marches by hundreds of thousands of people as well as brawls between protesters and police officers, which sometimes filled the streets of the Asian financial capital’s business district with tear gas.
To curb the protests, the Chinese government last year imposed the national security law, which outlaws what it defines as terrorism, subversion, secession and collusion with foreign forces.
The 47 people charged on Sunday were accused of breaking that law by helping to organize an informal election primary last July for Hong Kong’s pro-democratic political camp. In doing so, the authorities argue, they may have violated the law’s subversion provisions, which ban interfering with, disrupting or undermining the functions of the Chinese or Hong Kong governments.
Participants say the primary was little different from others held in democracies around the world. More than 600,000 people named their preferred choices to run for legislative office in September, generally favoring candidates closely associated with the 2019 protests.
Under a strategy proposed by Mr. Tai, the pro-democracy bloc could use a majority in the city’s Legislative Council to block the government’s budget, which under Hong Kong law could eventually force the chief executive, Carrie Lam, to step down.
The September elections were ultimately postponed by Mrs. Lam’s government, which cited pandemic restrictions. Pro-democracy activists said the delay was more likely an effort to stave off the defeat of pro-establishment candidates, who lost badly in neighborhood-level elections in 2019.
In November, the Legislative Council’s pro-democracy bloc resigned en masse after Beijing forced four of its members out of office. This month, the Chinese government signaled that it planned to change Hong Kong’s electoral system to bar candidates seen as disloyal to China’s ruling Communist Party. While the details of those changes have yet to be finalized, they are expected to prohibit all but the most conciliatory opposition figures from taking office.
The 47 charged on Sunday were among 55 who were arrested in January and then released on bail as the police continued their investigation. A few of those arrested last month were not charged on Sunday, including John Clancey, 79, an American human rights lawyer and former priest who has lived in Hong Kong since the 1960s.
“Most people are ready to sacrifice when they see someone in need,” Mr. Clancey said, standing outside a police station before a bail appointment. “I think we must maintain the positive view the Hong Kong people have had for so many years of being able to build a better society based on human rights and working for democracy.”
Those charged will be arraigned on Monday at a courthouse in the West Kowloon area, where another trial of pro-democracy activists is continuing. In that case, seven veteran political figures are facing illegal assembly charges for a demonstration in 2019, including the publisher Jimmy Lai, the labor leader Lee Cheuk-yan, the barrister and former legislator Margaret Ng and Martin Lee, often called the “father of democracy” in Hong Kong, who helped write the territory’s mini-constitution.
Those charged on Sunday had been ordered days in advance to report to the police, and since then, many had been saying farewell to loved ones and buying prison necessities, like sneakers without shoelaces.
Under the strict requirements of the security law, those charged are unlikely to be granted bail ahead of trial.
Owen Chow, a 24-year-old activist who ran in the primary and was one of those charged on Sunday, posted a photo online of a Buddhist chant newly tattooed onto his right arm. “It looks like the suffering will continue indefinitely,” he wrote. “What we need is not imagination about the suffering, but hope and determination beyond suffering.”