Moves by the Hong Kong government to ban an organization advocating independent status for the city have been widely criticized as representing the end of its traditional freedom of speech and association.
Hong Kong police have gathered more than 700 documents as "evidence" supporting their call to ban the Hong Kong National Party, citing many public speeches and comments made by its convenor Chan Ho-tin.
Assistant police commissioner Rebecca Lam said in a letter to the government's security chief John Lee that was posted to social media by Chan late on Wednesday that the party's aims of building a republic of Hong Kong and abolishing its mini-constitution, the Basic Law, are in violation of its first principle; that Hong Kong is an administrative region of the People's Republic of China.
In the letter, Lam listed Chan's pro-independence activities, which include "infiltrating" secondary schools via his party's "political enlightenment" program, publishing articles, taking part in elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo), and various fund-raising and campaigning activities on the streets of Hong Kong.
Lam's letter claimed that the HKNP has plans in place to achieve the purpose of promoting localism and separatism, said the officer, and therefore poses an "imminent threat" to China’s territorial integrity and national security, because Chan had refused to rule out the use of force or civil disobedience.
The government should therefore "take precautionary measures" to prevent the party seeking to carry out such plans, by banning it under laws governing the formation of societies, Lam wrote.
Chan said the bid to ban the HKNP has little to do with the law, and is instead a political move that effectively ends freedom of speech in Hong Kong.
"Pretty much everything in their dossier of evidence is stuff that I have said," Chan told RFA on Thursday. "So we can see that it is speech that is being criminalized here."
"The freedom to take part in elections, freedom of speech and association are all basic human rights protected in the Basic Law, and all I have been doing is exercising my rights as a citizen," he said.
He said the government doesn't even need to enact highly controversial laws governing crimes such as subversion and sedition under Article 23 of the Basic Law. "They can just use other laws to achieve the same purpose, because there was too big a backlash against Article 23 legislation."
An email to the office of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam requesting comment on the move against the HKNP met with no reply at the time of publication on Thursday.
The Hong Kong government shelved its initial bid to bring in subversion and sedition laws following a mass street protest of around half a million people in 2003, but the ruling Chinese Communist Party has said it expects the administration to introduce a new bill to LegCo.
Hong Kong political commentator Sang Pu agreed with Chan.
"This criminalizes speech, and it means that anyone who says something that they don't like will be visited with the wrath of the government," Sang told RFA. "They can be turned into a criminal."
"This sort of thing would be unheard of under the rule of law," Sang said. "There, the concept is that speech must represent a a clear link to the threat of violence [in order to be criminal]."
Under the United Nations-endorsed Johannesburg Principles governing national security and human rights law, restrictions to freedom of speech on the grounds of national security aren't legitimate if they seek to "entrench a particular ideology," rather than to stave off a violent threat of a military or internal nature.
"The Chinese Communist Party often talks about nipping signs of dissent in the bud, and this is exactly the same kind of thinking, attitude and maneuvers that they would use," Sang said. "It's unthinkable that they would get a couple of policemen to visit Chan Ho-tin first thing in the morning with a huge dossier of documents four inches thick."
The city's secretary for security John Lee said on Tuesday he had received a police recommendation to issue an order to ban the HKNP from operating in the city under the Societies Ordinance.
The law states that the police may recommend such a course of action if they believe the move is "necessary in the interests of national security or public safety, public order or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others," the Hong Kong government said in a statement on its website on Tuesday.
The HKNP was given 21 days to submit written arguments against the proposed ban.
The U.K.'s Foreign and Commonweath Office expressed concern at the moves to ban the HKNP.
"The U.K. does not support Hong Kong independence, but Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, and its rights and freedoms, are central to its way of life, and it is important they are fully respected," the statement said.
Ted Yoho, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives' Asia-Pacific Subcommittee, said he agrees that the proposed ban is entirely political, and aimed at suppressing dissent.
"When you have a dictator, President or Chairman Xi Jinping or however you want to call him, you find someone who will undermine the opposition, to make the opposition party illegal," Yoho said in comments to RFA's Cantonese Service on Thursday.
"They are afraid, and they feel uneasy because they don’t want Hong Kong people have more rights; they want Hong Kong to be assimilated into China," he said.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.