By The Washington Post · Siobhán O'Grady · WORLD, ASIA-PACIFIC
The police force tweeted Wednesday that it had detained four people for allegedly advocating for Hong Kong's independence. All four "claimed to be students," the tweet said.
Li Kwai-Wah, a senior superintendent in the Hong Kong police force overseeing enforcement of the new law, said at a late-night news conference in Hong Kong that the four people arrested had said "they want to establish a Hong Kong republic, and that they will unreservedly fight for it," the Associated Press reported. "They also said they want to unite all pro-independence groups in Hong Kong for this purpose."
Police allege the young people made such comments on social media, the AP reported.
Under the new national security measures, adopted June 30, those convicted of crimes amounting to what Beijing described as "separatism," "subversion," "terrorism" and "collusion with foreign forces" could face life sentences.
Opponents see the new law as a dangerous infringement on Hong Kong's relative autonomy from China. The city has operated under semiautonomous rule since 1997, when Britain handed the former colony back to China under the agreement that Beijing would preserve the "one country, two systems" framework until 2047.
Ho-fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University, said Hong Kong residents have feared a crackdown on free speech since the law was implemented. The arrests Wednesday probably will amplify those concerns.
"It seems [officials] are testing the waters and the world's reaction to it by picking some lesser-known people," he said, noting that some of Hong Kong's most prominent activists were not among those detained Wednesday. But it's "very troubling," he added, that the arrests, which appear to be based on comments made on social media, are targeting "people by their opinion or speech more than action."
These cases, he said, may be managed more carefully and with lesser punishments than other cases as authorities gauge reaction to the arrests. "If the backlash is not so big, they may go further," he said.
Activists in Hong Kong have long raised alarm over Chinese encroachment on the global financial center. Last year, protests over concerns the Hong Kong government was preparing to agree to allow China to extradite suspects for trial on the mainland engulfed the city, igniting a broader movement calling for the enactment of other democratic demands and greater independence from China.
When the new law came into force, activists began deleting social media accounts and some political parties disbanded, citing concerns they could be targeted and jailed. Tens of thousands of people still poured into the streets that night to protest the new measures.