Concerns are growing in Hong Kong after the arrest of a pro-democracy district council member that the government may not need to enact controversial new laws to accuse people of sedition and subversion.
Hong Kong police on Thursday arrested Cheng Lai-king, the chairwoman of Central and Western District Council, on suspicion of "seditious intention" under existing colonial-era laws.
Pro-democracy lawmakers and lawyers have said the offense of seditious intent, which carries a fine of HK$5,000 (U.S.$645) and a jail term of up to two years, could contravene Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
The concept applied under British colonial rule to anyone who incites disaffection against "the person of His Majesty, or His Heirs or Successors, or against the government of this colony."
Cheng was held for more than 10 hours and then released without charge, although police said an investigation is still ongoing.
Cheng could also face a lawsuit brought by the city's secretary for justice for contempt of court after she was accused of sharing a Facebook post containing the personal details of a police officer believed to be linked to the shooting of Indonesian journalist Veby Mega Indah while she was covering protests last September.
Veby lost her sight in one eye after being hit by a police projectile believed to be a rubber or textile bullet.
No such post was visible on Cheng’s Facebook page on Thursday, Reuters reported.
Cheng's arrest prompted a protest by around 100 members of the Democratic Party, of which she is a member, and their supporters, outside Kwai Chung police station, where she was being held.
100 Democrats rally in support
Superintendent Swalikh Mohammed said Cheng is believed to have shared the officer's name, picture, staff number, address and phone number, via her social media account.
"If you look online, there are a lot of words which are in fact, causing a lot of incitement," he told government broadcaster RTHK.
"What we have noticed in the past eight, nine months is that somebody incites some violence and you see it happening on the streets immediately. That's what concerns us and that's why we have to take appropriate enforcement action against people who breach the law."
About 100 Democrats went to Kwai Chung Police Station on Thursday morning to express their support, criticizing the police for over arrest and retaliation.
Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui, who is also a district councilor, said it was significant that a pro-democracy councilor had been singled out under an outdated law.
"The police are only targeting speech by pro-democracy politicians," Hui said. "Why have they only targeted speech by the chairwoman of a district council?"
"I think this is a pretext for political retaliation on the part of the police, because one of our district councilors exposed wrongdoing and abuse of power by the police," he said. "This is extremely shameful."
In January, Cheng ordered plainclothes police officers who refused to show credentials at a meeting of the Central and Western District Council to leave the chamber, in the presence of police commissioner Chris Tang.
She also ordered police supporters to leave after they heckled the meeting from the public seats.
Voters rebuke Beijing
Millions of voters in Hong Kong delivered a stunning rebuke to Beijing and the administration of chief executive Carrie Lam with a landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates in District Council elections last November, after months of pro democracy and anti-government protests in the city.
Pro-democracy candidates won 388 seats, an overwhelming majority of the 452 council seats up for grabs, after 71 percent of registered voters -- nearly half the city's population -- turned out to vote, delivering control of 17 out of 18 districts to pro-democracy groups.
Since then, police have arrested 15 newly elected pro-democracy councilors, including three chairmen and women and one deputy chairman, sparking concerns that they are targeting the local politicians for political reasons.
Pro-democracy politicians fear that the use of colonial-era sedition laws could be a way of testing the waters in the light of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's insistence that Hong Kong enact sedition and subversion laws as required by Article 23 of the Basic Law.
Mass protests against the Article 23 legislation led to the early resignation of then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, after which the bill was shelved.
But Beijing has repeatedly said it shouldn't be put off any longer.
Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung said the colonial laws had remained on the statute book after the 1997 handover to Chinese rule because of government "indifference."
"Put simply, this is equivalent to an incitement [to subversion] law," Yeung said. "In making use of an illiberal law left over from colonial times, the Hong Kong government is absolutely violating human rights law."
Democratic Party lawmaker James To said that if this law is brought back into use, there will be no need to enact new laws under Article 23.
"If they have the guts to use the Crimes Ordinance [in this way], it means that we already effectively have Article 23 legislation here in Hong Kong," To said.
"I have reason to believe that they want to use this as a test to make a case for using these existing laws as Article 23 legislation," he said. "They want to see how the courts will decide if they start using them again."
The sedition laws were used to prosecute the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao newspaper and dissidents who criticized the British colonial government.
Reported by Lu Xi and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese and Mandarin Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.