China stepped up public criticism of an outspoken Hong Kong law lecturer on Wednesday, saying his hypothetical comments on possible independence for the city represented a threat to its sovereignty, and accusing him of making common cause with supporters of independence in Taiwan.
Earlier this month, Hong Kong University associate professor Benny Tai, who has since voiced concerns for his personal safety, had made speculative remarks about the possibility of independence for the city at an academic forum in Taiwan.
Tai, who has since reported being followed and secretly photographed by 'a powerful department,' told the forum that Hong Kong, along with other parts of China, might consider options including independence in the event that China became a democratic country.
His comments prompted an unprecedented rebuke from the Hong Kong government, which "strongly condemned" them, as well as continuing criticism from the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
The State Council's Taiwan Affairs Office warned on Wednesday that Tai is trying "unite pro-independence forces" in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and poses a threat to Chinese sovereignty.
"We strongly oppose the collusion of independence forces in Taiwan and Hong Kong to interfere in [the city's governance] and to destroy the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong," spokesman Ma Xiaoguang told a news conference in Beijing.
"These actions and conspiracies are not welcomed by the people and will never succeed," Ma said, adding that Tai was jeopardizing national sovereignty and territorial integrity with his comments.
Tai has repeatedly denied supporting Hong Kong independence, but Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily earlier this week called for Tai to be punished, hinting that the University of Hong Kong might consider firing him.
The paper said in an editorial in its overseas edition that Tai's claim that he was pursuing academic discussion was a "weak excuse," adding that freedom of speech had limitations.
Tai, who was among the initiators of the 2014 pro-democracy movement, has said that the official outcry at his comments come ahead of the government's tabling of controversial legislation outlawing acts that harm China's national security, including charges similar to sedition or subversion.
The ongoing row over Tai, which saw more than 1,000 protesters take to the streets to demonstrate for freedom of speech last weekend, comes amid growing concern by civil and political rights groups over dwindling freedom of expression in the former British colony.
Help for Gui Minhai
In a submission for the United Nations Human Rights Council's forthcoming review of the human rights situation in China, a group of some 40 groups called on the authorities to do more to help Hong Kong bookseller and Swedish national Gui Minhai, who remains in detention across the internal border in mainland China after being snatched from his holiday home in Thailand in October 2015.
Gui was among five booksellers held by Chinese police in opaque operations, including the alleged abduction from Hong Kong of British national Lee Bo, on charges of selling "banned books" containing political gossip about President Xi Jinping to mainland Chinese customers.
"The [Hong Kong government] should immediately undertake an independent and public investigation into the circumstances regarding the detention and abduction of the Causeway Bay booksellers," the Hong Kong Universal Periodic Review Coalition said in a submission to the U.N. this week.
"[The Hong Kong government] should take immediate actions to ensure the safety of Gui Minhai and call for his unconditional release," it said.
It also warned of diminishing academic freedom in the city.
"Measures taken by politicians, university councils and pro-establishment academics have been in contrast to academic freedoms," the report said, and called for an end to the chief executive's role as overall leader of the city's universities.
"This includes calling for the removal of academics, promoting academics with pro-establishment views and placing arbitrary limits on freedom of speech," it said.
'Excessive' force by police
The report cited a number of physical attacks and verbal threats meted out to pro-democracy politicians and activists, in person, via media and online, including the growing use of "excessive" force used by police during political protests.
"During the Umbrella Movement in 2014, police resorted to violence against more than 1,300 people, with 500 admitted to hospitals," the report said, calling for an immediate inquiry into the use of police violence against protesters during the Occupy Central pro-democracy movement.
It called for an end to the prosecution of peaceful protesters on public order charges.
"[The Hong Kong government] is increasingly using the Public Order Ordinance to arrest and prosecute protesters, restricting assembly rights and human rights activism," the report said, calling for charges relating to "unlawful assembly" and "disorder in a public place" to be deleted from the statute book, and for an end to the requirement to notify the authorities of any public meeting in advance.
It said that the administration's Secretary of Justice should no longer be allowed to initiate criminal prosecutions.
The report says the government has also made "no progress" on promises on fully democratic elections made in Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
"[Hong Kong] should outline clear and detailed plans, with a timetable on how universal and equal suffrage will be instituted and enjoyed by all citizens, within one year," it said, calling for a fair, open and transparent electoral system with no more political screening of candidates.
More than a dozen would-be election candidates have been disqualified for their political beliefs in recent months, including Demosisto's Agnes Chow, it said, calling for legislation to protect the rights of citizens to stand for election regardless of their political beliefs.
Reported by Fok Leung-kiu and Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Chen Pan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.