Pro-Beijing groups have called on the Hong Kong government to take action against activists who put up banners calling for independence for the city on university campuses, saying those who "break the law" should be punished.
Protesters gathered outside the Hong Kong High Court and police headquarters on Tuesday, calling for a criminal investigation into the banners, which they said were a violation of the city's mini-constitution and local criminal law.
The protests come amid calls by pro-Beijing lawmakers for education officials to investigate how universities are dealing with the recent flurry of pro-independence banners.
Last week, executive councilor and barrister Ronny Tong said students who put up large black banners reading "Independence for Hong Kong" on the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) campus could be regarded as seditious.
But CUHK official Chan Chi-sum said on Tuesday that while he believed the posters were going "too far," the university wouldn't be influenced by the calls for an investigation.
"Students should be free to discuss a variety of topics, including Hong Kong independence," Chan told journalists, adding that the CUHK's management team will be discussing the banners at its meeting on Tuesday.
"The ultimate decision is the university’s responsibility," he said.
Hong Kong University student union leader Wong Ching Tak said the city's traditional freedoms of expression should encompass discussion of independence.
"There is no problem with discussing independence, and nobody has the right to tell us that the first clause of the Basic Law, which says that Hong Kong is a part of China, can override the other clauses," he said.
"This comes under freedom of expression, for sure, so I would like to criticize these pro-Beijing groups and lawmakers who are acting exactly as if they were back in the Cultural Revolution," Wong said.
"They are trying to make mountains out of molehills, and demonstrate their loyalty to the government, and now they're waiting to carry out struggle sessions," he said, in a reference to the political turmoil and arbitrary denunciations that characterized late supreme Chinese leader Mao Zedong's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).
Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy" and the continuation of its existing freedoms of speech, association, and publication under the terms of the 1997 handover from Britain to China.
But a string of legal interpretations by China's parliament of the Basic Law, as well as the cross-border detentions of five Hong Kong booksellers, have left many fearing that the city's traditional freedoms and its judicial independence have been seriously eroded.
Pro-Beijing activist Tso Tak-ming of the group "Protect Hong Kong" called on police to start "hauling people in" at any time. A similar group on Facebook is titled "Red Flag Heroes Protect Hong Kong."
"So many people have made reports to the police," Tso said. "I don't know what the chief of police thinks he is doing, not acting on them."
"It's not difficult. If the law has been broken, then enforce it. If not, let them go," he said.
"Hong Kong has the rule of law, so people who break the law must bear the consequences: I hope young people can understand this. They should be warned."
Ashley Tse, who heads another pro-Beijing group, Hong Kong Youth Against Independence, said Hong Kong's criminal code does provide for police action when the Basic Law has been breached.
"The question of Hong Kong independence is clearly in breach of the law, and if we have laws, we should abide by them," Tse said. "I hope the Justice Department and the police will enforce the law strictly."
"There are limits to freedom of expression, and those limits say that you can't break the law."
'No suppression, interference'
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam appeared to echo the protesters' comments on Tuesday.
"There was no suppression of the students' right to free expression, nor any question of interference in academic freedom," Lam told reporters. "It's not about that, at all, so you shouldn't confuse the two issues."
Lam has vowed to fight "pro-independence forces" in the city and begin fostering a sense of Chinese identity among very young children, sparking fears that she will try to brainwash them into loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Lam, who took office on the 20th anniversary of the July 1, 1997 handover to Chinese rule, said her administration would "strictly" enforce existing law, which she said bans "pro-independence behavior."
Recent opinion polls by the University of Hong Kong found that 37 percent of respondents identified as Hongkongers, and 21 percent as Chinese, while others chose more ambiguous options like "Hongkongers in China" or "Chinese in Hong Kong."
But only 3.1 percent of the 18-28 age group said they identified as Chinese, the lowest result since the poll began in 1997.
And a recent opinion poll commissioned by the pro-Beijing group Silent Majority for Hong Kong showed that while more than 70 percent of respondents overall strongly supported Beijing's view that independence for the city will never be an option, only 51 percent of people aged 18-29 agreed with the Communist Party's position.
Some 43 percent said they disagreed.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.