This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
Hong Kong police on Wednesday arrested four people on suspicion of pro-independence activities under a draconian security law recently imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
The arrestees aged from 16 to 21 were taken into custody in raids in the New Territories districts of Yuen Long, Shatin, and Tuen Mun on suspicion of “organizing and inciting secessionist activities,” senior superintendent Li Kwai-wah of the newly-formed national security squad of the Hong Kong police told reporters.
They are suspected of posting announcements online calling on people to fight to establish a “Hong Kong nation,” and of declaring that they would use all necessary means to achieve this end.
There were also calls to unite all pro-independence groups in Hong Kong, Li said.
As the posts were made after the new law was introduced on July 1, they fall under articles in the law banning “incitement” to secessionist activities.
Earlier on Wednesday, members of a pro-autonomy group called Studentlocalism, which disbanded ahead of the law’s implementation, said its former leader Tony Chung had been arrested at his home in Yuen Long.
Footage of the arrest shared online showed a plainclothes national security officer identifying himself, before leading Chung to a vehicle with his hands behind his back.
The arrests came as Hong Kong’s leaders discussed postponing September’s Legislative Council (LegCo) elections, ostensibly because of a recent surge in coronavirus cases in the city.
Opposition and pro-democracy candidates swept the board in District Council elections last November, prompting fears among pro-China politicians that they could win a majority in LegCo on a wave of popular anger and months of street protests over the loss of Hong Kong’s promised freedoms and autonomy under Chinese rule.
Opposition politicians in Hong Kong have accused the authorities of using the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse, citing Beijing’s fear of a pro-democracy majority in the LegCo chamber.
Chief executive Carrie Lam alone holds the power to dissolve the current session of LegCo and trigger a general election, and she may also order emergency sessions of the existing council to convene to process urgent government business even after it has been dissolved.
Several media outlets, including pro-China organizations, have reported that such a postponement is imminent.
Based on a political agenda
Tanya Chan, convenor of the pro-democracy camp in the Legislative Council (LegCo), said any such move would be read as political by the majority of people in Hong Kong.
“Without a sufficient or profound medical basis, I’m sure most people will assume that the decision is purely based on a political agenda, instead of any practical and medical reasons,” Chan said.
She said other countries had gone ahead with elections during the pandemic, and there was no reason why Hong Kong couldn’t do the same.
David Hui, professor of respiratory medicine at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), said the government hadn’t consulted him about the risks of going ahead with the polls given the current outbreak in the city.
Wilson Wong, associate professor of public policy at CUHK, said there had been no known infection cluster associated with democratic primaries on the weekend of July 14, when more than 600,000 people cast their votes for would-be candidates.
“The absence of any cluster from the democratic primaries shows that it is entirely possible to make election arrangements that pay attention to hygiene and social distancing,” Wong said.
“So if the government postpones the [LegCo] election in the face of such a successful example, I think that is a pretty weak argument,” he said.
Chan Kin-man, one of the founders of the 2014 Occupy Central movement, said it would be an “extreme” move if the government goes ahead as reported.
“We have ways to prevent coronavirus transmission … such as social distancing,” Chan said. “They have to find a way to respect the political rights of citizens.”
“It just shows you how they are thinking now; how easy it is for them to disregard people’s political rights,” he said.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover agreement, Hong Kong was promised the maintenance of its traditional freedoms of speech and association, as well as universal suffrage.
But Beijing’s ruling out of fully democratic elections in 2014, its insistence on the prosecution and disqualification of key opposition figures, and its subsequent imposition of the National Security Law following months of popular protests over diminishing freedoms have collapsed the distinction between the city and the rest of mainland China, rights groups and overseas governments say.
The vaguely worded new security law threatens anyone criticizing the Chinese or Hong Kong authorities anywhere in the world, prompting Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to end their extradition arrangements with Hong Kong.
The U.S., which revoked Hong Kong’s special trading privileges after the law took effect, has indicated it will follow suit.
China’s feared state security police have now set up a headquarters in the city to implement its ban on actions and speech deemed subversive, pro-independence, or “terrorist” in inclination, although the definitions have already been criticized as impossibly vague by overseas legal experts.
The government has warned that slogans linked to last year’s protest movement, including “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now!”, will fall within the law’s remit.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the law will be “devastating” to human rights protections in the city.
It has created specialized secret security agencies, denied fair trial rights, provided sweeping new powers to police, increased restraints on civil society and the media, and weakened judicial oversight, the group said in a report on its website on Wednesday.
“Long used to freedoms, Hong Kong people now face the prospect of lengthy prison terms for possessing banners or chanting slogans that the authorities dislike,” HRW senior China researcher Maya Wang said.
“The Hong Kong authorities, with China’s backing, are imposing mainland-style repression on a city long recognized for its freedoms,” she said.
The law will also affect the right to education and freedom of information, opinion, and expression in schools, as political statements and discussions are banned from the city’s classrooms, and as books by pro-democracy figures are removed from its public libraries.