Hong Kong's judicial chief said on Friday that free speech has its “limits” despite constitutional protections, and that the city's police would consider investigating members of a new political party advocating independence for the former British colony.
A new political group, the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), announced on Sunday it would campaign in the forthcoming legislative elections on a pro-independence platform and against the Basic Law
The announcement sparked horrified responses from Chinese officials.
Hong Kong's Special Administrative Region (SAR) government was quick to chime in with a vague warning of "action according to law" in a statement earlier this week.
Basic Law limits speech
"Freedom of expression is not without limits," Secretary for Justice Rimsky Yuen told reporters on Friday, when asked if the government will uphold the basic freedoms promised in the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which has formed the basis for Hong Kong's legal system since the 1997 handover to China.
"One cannot use freedom of speech as a shield to defend suggestions which are contrary to the fundamental principle expounded in the Basic Law," Yuen said.
Speaking after the government's Companies Registry refused to register the HKNP, Yuen said: "People should not confuse freedom of expression with a suggestion which is quite blatantly contrary to the Basic Law."
Yuen said he didn't rule out the possibility of a police investigation into the party and its founders.
"Since someone has openly come out to suggest that they are going to act contrary to our Basic Law, therefore, I think ... the law enforcement agencies would decide whether or not to conduct an investigation," he said.
"We would look at it," Yuen said. "My colleagues would consider the applicable law and the evidence and then will decide what to do."
"As a responsible government ... I think we would have to closely monitor the situation."
The HKNP has said it will campaign against the Basic Law, which it called "a draconian law" drafted without any input from the people of Hong Kong.
"We will fight this draconian law all the way ... and campaign alongside the people of Hong Kong for independence," it said in a statement on its Facebook page this week.
Independence promotion is wrong
Hong Kong second-in-command Carrie Lam repeated the government line on Friday, saying that the city is "an inalienable part" of the People's Republic of China, and that calls for independence are against the Basic Law.
"Any promotion of independence is wrong," she told reporters.
While there are currently no laws forbidding the advocacy of independence on Hong Kong's statute books, Article 23 of the Basic Law requires the city to enact laws "to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People's Government," which could be interpreted as a ban on such speech.
An attempt to bring in such legislation in 2002 sparked a massive demonstration on July 1, 2003, hastening the departure of then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa and an embarrassing withdrawal of the proposed law.
However, there are now concerns that Beijing may step up the pressure on Hong Kong.
Beijing's chief envoy in Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, said in a TV interview that there must be "a bottom line" which cannot be crossed.
"We must stand firm on our principles ... we can't allow such boils to fester," he told Phoenix TV on Thursday.
Hong Kong University law professor Eric Cheung said the emergence of the HKNP had likely rung loud alarm bells in Beijing.
"There was no mention of forbidding advocacy of Hong Kong independence during the 2003 draft legislation under Article 23," he said. "But this has touched a nerve in Beijing, so it may still come to that."
"It's even possible that they could enact Article 23 legislation into Chinese law," Cheung said.
Chinese officials have warned that Beijing could enact laws governing subversion in Hong Kong, and extend them to cover the city by decree of the country's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC).
China's official media have already slammed the HKNP, with officials saying it threatens the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong, as well as China's national sovereignty and security.
And there are signs that Beijing's views on the manner have been taken to heart at all levels of government in Hong Kong with the refusal of the HKNP's company registration bid.
The head of the youth group Youngspiration, Baggio Leung, a prominent voice in the "localist" movement rejecting Beijing's influence in Hong Kong, said his group had also been denied permission to register as either a company or a community group.
"I think it's highly unlikely [the HKNP] will be able to register as a community group if they can't even get registered as a company," Leung said.
He said groups not approved by the government had to find ways around local laws governing fund-raising, however.
"It's possible to get around illegal fund-raising rules in Hong Kong by selling T-shirts; you have to sell them quite dearly, and then that is your funding," he said.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.