A top Chinese official sent out a warning to Hong Kong on Tuesday that Beijing will adopt a "zero tolerance" policy towards anyone advocating independence for the former British colony, a political stance that is seen as a threat to national security.
Wang Huning, a member of ruling Chinese Communist Party's Politburo standing committee, made the comments in a private meeting with Hong Kong's delegates to China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC).
"No one in Hong Kong should do anything that would compromise the integrity of the sovereignty, national security, and developmental benefits of the nation, and not to undermine the authority of the central authorities," Wang said, in comments quoted by NPC delegate for Hong Kong Raymond Tam.
Wang had also called on delegates to help Hong Kong people come to "a better understanding" of the Chinese constitution and the Basic Law and strengthen their love for the motherland.
He said the city should "integrate itself" into China's overall development strategy.
Recent surveys indicate that some 40 percent of young people are open to the idea of independence for Hong Kong, but national security legislation must ban moves to "split national territory," which could leave its supporters open to criminal prosecution.
Political affairs commentator Liu Ruishao said Wang Huning's comments appear to be trying to keep the issue of independence alive, however.
"The more they pay attention to the idea of independence, the more people will be talking about it," Liu said.
"On the one hand, Beijing wants to discourage any talk of independence, but on the other, it needs to keep up political tensions to a certain level," he said. "Otherwise, the rest of the world might think that Beijing has already won that battle, and that talk of independence no longer poses a threat."
Civic Party leader Alvin Yeung said he doesn't see how it poses a threat in the first place.
"I don't think that talk of independence for Hong Kong is as serious a matter as they seem to think," Yeung said. "It seems to have tailed off considerably during the past year or two."
"If high-ranking leaders are taking it this seriously, do they perhaps know something we don't? If so, it would be better if they said it outright," he said.
Yeung said proponents of independence had likely become a straw man for Beijing to attack.
"In 2016, they were opposing talk of independence, and in 2018 they went after people who were more in favor of self-determination," he said. "What will they be going after in 2020 — people who have called for a reappraisal of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre?"
‘No room for debate’
The warning came as Wang Zhenmin, the legal chief for Beijing's central government liaison office in Hong Kong, called in a recent report for a separate judicial body to address crimes that "endanger state security."
Chinese officials are stepping up pressure on Hong Kong to pass draconian security laws that could leave its citizens open to accusations of subversion and sedition, warning that there will be "no room for debate" over the security legislation, required under Article 23 of the Basic Law.
According to Wang, writing in a recent report for Beijing's prestigious Tsinghua University, Hong Kong's common law judiciary lacks the necessary experience to interpret and apply China's civil law in cases involving state security.
"Article 23 of the Basic Law should be dealt with by professionals who are familiar with Hong Kong and mainland laws and policies when they deal with crimes that endanger national security, after the legislation is enacted," Wang said.
He proposed setting up a specialized agency within Hong Kong's judicial system to deal exclusively with crimes that endanger national security, according to report by the city's Citizen News website.
Premier Li Keqiang's annual work report to the National People's Congress (NPC) on Monday also called for greater integration with mainland China.
"The practice of 'one country, two systems' was continuously enriched and developed, the authority of the Constitution and the Basic Law was further highlighted, in-depth promotion of exchanges and cooperation between the mainland and Hong Kong and Macau was achieved," the premier said of the previous year.
"We must support the integration of Hong Kong and Macau into the general development of the country ... We firmly believe that Hong Kong and Macau will surely develop and thrive together with the hinterland of the motherland," Li said.
The Basic Law specifies that China’s socialist system “will not be practiced” in Hong Kong, and that the city’s existing way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years after the 1997 handover to China.
But pro-democracy politicians, lawyers and rights activists say there are already worrying signs that Beijing is seeking to impose more direct rule on the city with a series of high-profile interventions in the city’s political life, including the debarring of “localist” and pro-independence lawmakers and election candidates and the jailing of the leaders of the 2014 Occupy Central movement.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.