Hong Kong on Monday formally banned a pro-independence political party, in a move strongly criticized by rights groups and pro-democracy politicians for curbing freedom of speech in the city.
Using colonial-era legislation once used to target "triad" criminal gangs in the city, Hong Kong's secretary for security John Lee announced the move in a formal notice via the government's legislative gazette.
"I hereby order that the operation or continued operation of the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) in Hong Kong be prohibited," the statement said, taking immediate effect from Monday.
The move comes after Hong Kong police said the HKNP and its leader Chan Ho-tin, also known as Andy Chan, posed 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.
Police gathered more than 700 documents as "evidence" 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.
Police 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.
Chan said he believes the banning of the party proves his point, however.
"I hope people will now realize that there are only two choices: to become a municipality under the direct control of Beijing, or independence for Hong Kong," Chan said. "I would choose independence for Hong Kong."
"People will only look for another solution when they realize that 'one country, two systems' isn't working," Chan said, in a reference to the formula agreed for Hong Kong's 1997 handover to Chinese rule that promised the city a "high degree of autonomy."
Storm of criticism
The banning of the HKNP prompted a storm of criticism from pro-democracy politicians and rights groups on Monday.
Civic Party lawmaker Alvin Yeung said that while he had no time for the HKNP's pro-independence platform, the government had no business interfering in political opinion.
"The Civic Party doesn't support the idea of independence for Hong Kong, or the main aims of the HKNP, but that doesn't mean that the government has the right to abolish a political party ... under free speech protections in the Basic Law," Yeung told RFA.
"A civilized society uses incentives, and its institutions, to win people's trust and confidence, not the suppression of opinion," he said.
Democratic Party lawmaker Au Nok-hin said the government's definition of "harming state security" is too broad and vague.
"How much has the HKNP harmed state security through its actions?" Au said. "This is really very subjective, and if we use ... that definition, then I think many other groups in Hong Kong could be sanctioned because of something they said."
The rights group Hong Kong Watch said the ban on the HKNP is "a clear breach" of the promises made by the ruling Chinese Communist Party in the handover agreement.
"The unprecedented step to ban an obscure party which had expressed opposition to the government, but not sought to enact that with violent actions, is an abuse of the law which could have further repercussions if applied to other parties," the group said in a statement on its website.
"The banning of the Hong Kong National Party is another example of the Hong Kong government appropriating vague and anachronistic colonial legislation to curtail basic rights and freedoms," it said.
It said the Societies Ordinance was created to target triad gangs and was only used in political situations where groups were planning to overthrow the government "through violent means."
It called on the Hong Kong government to overturn the ban, so as to meet Hong Kong's commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.