Hong Kong: Hong Kong police arrested four student activists over online comments they said violated a new Beijing-drafted national security law, the first time authorities have used the controversial legislation to limit speech on the internet.
Police detained four people ages 16 to 21 — including three who were male and one who was female — over comments posted in July inciting others to commit secession, the Hong Kong Police Force said Wednesday. The arrests came after police found a newly established group online calling for the creation of a “Republic of Hong Kong” by “any means” necessary.
“Police remind the public that the cyberworld of the internet is not a virtual space beyond the law,” the police said in a statement.
Those arrested included former Studentlocalism convener Tony Chung, 19, the group said on Twitter, adding that the four were detained at police stations in northwestern Hong Kong and were denied bail. Local democracy activists were joined by U.S. lawmakers in criticizing the arrests as an attack on free speech in the former British colony, and an overreaction under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.
“HK police admitted that they arrested four students for organizing or inciting secession. No concrete actions executed, only posts on social media,” pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu wrote on Twitter. “The max. penalty is life imprisonment. Typical CCP speech crime.”
The Hong Kong police didn’t immediately respond Thursday to an email and a phone call seeking comment.
Activists including Sunny Cheung and Ventus Lau speculated that the arrests could be related to the “Initiative Independence Party,” which was set up by overseas members of Studentlocalism. The group, whose Facebook page saw an increase in likes to more than 700 after the news broke, pledged to “fight using any means possible in order to expel Chinese colonizers from our land.”
The arrests bring to 15 the number of Hong Kong residents taken in under the sweeping security law, which China imposed on the former British colony on June 30. Authorities have indicated that its broadly worded provisions against subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces could cover non-violent actions common in protests that rocked the city last year.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has argued that the law will restore stability and allow more residents to exercise their own rights, saying that speech supporting independence isn’t protected along with other views inconsistent with the law. While officials have repeatedly said that the law targets a “very small minority of people,” they have also described it as a “sword of Damocles” hanging over the government’s most strident critics.
The legislation has fanned fears that Hong Kong could eventually be drawn behind China’s Great Firewall system of internet controls and censorship. Some local startups have already begun discussing or executing plans to move data out of the city, potentially foreshadowing moves by larger firms such as Facebook Inc., Alphabet Inc.’s Google and Twitter Inc.
The arrests come after a flurry of local media reports suggesting Hong Kong’s government will seek to delay Legislative Council elections set for Sept. 6, when the city’s opposition hoped to demonstrate popular support against Beijing’s actions. Top officials were mulling asking the National People’s Congress for authority to postpone the election for a year, the South China Morning Post reported Thursday, citing people it didn’t identify.
The newspaper, which echoed similar reports in other outlets earlier this week, said Lam wanted Beijing’s support to prevent legal challenges in local courts. The NPC’s top legislative body announced plans Wednesday to meet Aug. 8-11, although no Hong Kong item was yet on the agenda.
Calls to delay the election have grown among pro-establishment figures amid a fresh coronavirus outbreak, with the city reporting 118 additional cases on Wednesday to bring its total to more than 3,000. Hong Kong’s government has reiterated earlier statements that agencies were still preparing for the election and were communicating with health authorities to formulate plans.
The election would be Hong Kong’s first since the security legislation was handed down, and the pro-democracy camp has expressed fear the law would be used to disqualify candidates. Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. earlier this week voiced concern about a possible postponement, saying the election should go ahead as planned.
Similarly, the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China criticized the latest arrests. The body’s co-chairmen, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Representative Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, called on Hong Kong to drop the prosecutions.
The arrests showed that police would use the law against crimes involving speech rather than just actions, said Ma Ngok, an associate professor of political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“If the law is applied that way it will be a major threat to the freedom of speech in Hong Kong,” Ma said. “It shows you don’t need direct actions. You can be arrested for simply sharing a post.” – Bloomberg