The arrests of four students in Hong Kong’s first crackdown on political figures after the enactment of a sweeping national security law imposed by China have prompted widespread public outrage.
Tony Chung, 19, the convenor of disbanded pro-independence group Studentlocalism and three other members were arrested late on Wednesday.
Without naming them, Hong Kong police’s newly formed national security division said young people aged between 16 and 21 were arrested under the new national security law for “organising and inciting secession” by their advocacy of independence.
Pro-Beijing press reported on the “thwarting” of the pro-independence group. The China-owned Wen Wei Po newspaper said the “National security police brandished its sword” in making the arrests and attacked the group for superficially closing but continuing to operate to “spread its pro-independence poison”.
The national security law stipulates that secessionist crimes are punishable by three to 10 years in jail or, in “serious” cases, life imprisonment.
“They are bullying the kids,” said one commenter on Facebook. “Why is it such a serious crime with just four students saying something. Does this subvert the country? No wonder those 27 countries told their citizens to refrain from going to Hong Kong.”
The arrests were the most high-profile crackdown on political figures since the introduction on 1 July of the national security law, which punishes crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. Ten people were arrested during a protest on national security charges on the first day of the law’s enactment.
Critics said the group arrested on Wednesday’s had done little except to advocate their political opinions online. They said that despite the government’s reassurance that civil liberties were protected under the security law, it was sending a strong signal that voices of dissent will be ruthlessly suppressed.
“These arrests show exactly what the national security law is intended to achieve: criminalising free speech,” said Victoria Hui, a political scientist at the University of Notre Dame in the United States, noting that the four were just making a declaration on social media. “The law covers not just actions, but also ‘activities’ which we now know include any mention of the banned term: ‘Hong Kong independence.’”.
“Their young age shows how Beijing has alienated young Hongkongers. Instead of wooing hearts, Beijing has treated them as enemies and taken all possible measures to destroy them,” she said.
Kenneth Chan, political scientist at the Hong Kong Baptist University said: “This shows the clear intention of the newly established national security agency to eagerly use their powers given by the new law to draw ‘red lines’ and ‘no-go areas’ in Hong Kong.”
After the enactment of the security law, the Hong Kong government also banned the popular protest slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our times” and the protest song “Glory to Hong Kong”, saying these effectively advocated independence from China and therefore breached the law.
“It is a reflection of a besieged mentality which imagines the nation and the city are subverted by enemies of the state within and without,” Chan said.
Studentlocalism announced its closure on the eve of the enactment of the national security law but announced later the establishment of its US division. It said on social media on 21 July that a new group called Initiative Independence party had been set up by former members overseas.
The Facebook page of the new group says it is pro-independence because “Hong Kong will never achieve democracy under China” and “building a Republic of Hong Kong … is our only way out.”
On his Twitter account, media tycoon Jimmy Lai said: “China is purportedly the second most powerful nation in the world. What can four school age youngsters do to overthrow such super power?”
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