Four Hong Kong students were arrested on Wednesday under the region’s new national security law, with local police claiming they were under suspicion of organising and inciting secession.
The students, aged 16 to 21, were previously part of a group called Student Localism which advocated for Hong Kong’s independence from China. That group disbanded last month, however, following Beijing’s rollout of the very legislation under which those students are now being punished: an iron-fisted law that seeks to crack down on vaguely-defined acts of secession, subversion, and terrorism.
The arrests are the first under these national security laws to target public political figures, the first to target individuals who were not protesting at the time, and the first to be made as part of a police operation.
At least 15 people have now been arrested under the law since it was enacted a month ago—many of them for shouting slogans and waving banners at protests.
Li Kwai-wah, an officer from a new national security unit within the Hong Kong police, told reporters that “our sources and investigation show that the group recently announced on social media to set up an organisation that advocates Hong Kong independence”—noting that computers, phones and documents were also seized, according to The Guardian.
Student Localism said in a statement that its former leader Tony Chung, 19, was among those arrested. Prominent rights activist Joshua Wong alleged in a tweet that Chung had been arrested for writing a Facebook post on "China's nationalism", and that the detainees' phones had been hacked shortly after their arrest.
“Tonight's arrest will clearly send a chilling effect on #HK online speech,” he added.
Local politicians and media identified two other former members of the group among the detainees. All four are students—three male, one female.
Upon its disbandment last month, Student Localism dismissed all of its members in Hong Kong and said that only its overseas chapters would continue to operate. Li claimed, however, that even those advocating for Hong Kong’s independence from afar could face punitive measures from authorities.
“If anyone who tells others that he advocates violating the national security law from abroad, even [if] he does that from overseas, we have the jurisdiction to investigate these kind[s] of cases,” he said.
The national security law has been heavily criticized by members of the international community, particularly those from the West who view it as a breach of the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement assigned to Hong Kong as a semi-autonomous region. Some have labelled it as an attempt by Beijing to quash dissent in the city, following a months-long, sometimes-violent pro-democracy protest movement last year.
The implementation of the laws has also prompted countries such as Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand to suspend their extradition agreements with Hong Kong, over fears that citizens might be further extradited from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland.