A pro-Beijing political activist in Hong Kong on Friday reported a prominent law professor and rights activist to police for "sedition" over speculative comments he made relating to possible independence for the city, as the ruling Chinese Communist Party stepped up its campaign to ban any talk of autonomy for the city.
Earlier this month, Hong Kong University associate professor Benny Tai told a political discussion forum in Taiwan that the city might consider various options including independence in the event that China became a democratic country.
Chinese officials and media commentators have hit out at Tai, dismissing his claim not to support the idea, saying that he represents a threat to China's sovereignty and accusing him of making common cause with supporters of independence in Taiwan.
Tai's comments also prompted an unprecedented rebuke from the Hong Kong government, which "strongly condemned" them in an official statement.
Now, Kenny Po from the pro-Beijing Defend Hong Kong Campaign, who also led a protest against Tai's comments, outside Hong Kong police headquarters, says Tai may have violated Hong Kong criminal law.
"Benny Tai shouldn't take the people of Hong Kong for idiots, thinking that we won't sue him," Po told reporters after making the complaint. "Actually, we will."
"Articles 9 and 10 of the Crimes Ordinance contain references to incitement [to sedition or subversion], and on the face of it, it seems to me that Benny Tai has committed that crime," Po said. "I hope the police department will act quickly on my report."
Article 10 of the ordinance dates back to when Hong Kong was a British colony, and states that seditious words can include words intended "to excite Her Majesty’s subjects or inhabitants of Hong Kong to attempt to procure the alteration, otherwise than by lawful means, of any other matter in Hong Kong as by law established."
The city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, requires the city to legislate against "treason, sedition and subversion" and crimes relating to national security, but also protects the right of Hong Kong citizens to freedom of speech.
Tai has said Beijing is using him as an example of speech that will be forbidden once the sedition and subversion laws are in place.
Impact of Tai’s comments
Meanwhile, the city's Legislative Council (LegCo) looks set to debate the impact of Tai's comments on the national interest and on the interests of Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region of China.
But a bid by pro-democracy lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki of the Civic Party to debate the damage done by the government's reaction was voted down.
Tai, a founder of the 2014 Occupy Central protests, had put forward a hypothetical suggestion that Hong Kong could one day consider the idea of independence, should China ever become a democracy.
Gary Chan, of the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), said the whole point of the forum where Tai made the comments was to discuss independence.
"Benny Tai's comments very clearly brought up the question of Hong Kong independence, so they can't be defended with the use of academic freedom," Chan said. "LegCo needs to send a very clear message to the general public, because ... we don't want people to get the wrong idea about this."
DAB district councilor Chan Hok Fung agreed.
"This was a pro-independence forum about independence for Taiwan and Hong Kong ... so he can be said to have promoted Hong Kong independence," he said. "We want LegCo members to get the chance to clarify that they oppose Hong Kong independence."
'An academic hypothesis'
The police report came after prominent Christians penned an open letter on Thursday criticizing Hong Kong and Chinese officials for violating the Basic Law's protections for freedom of speech.
"This time, the Hong Kong government took the lead in accusing Benny Tai of advocating Hong Kong independence," Hong Kong pastor and letter signatory Lau Chi Hong told RFA. "This actually harmed Hong Kong people's freedom of speech and academic freedom as guaranteed by the Basic Law."
"We don't believe that Professor Tai's comments in Taiwan were advocating independence for Hong Kong," Lau said. "It was just an academic hypothesis based on one possible development in the future ... and we strongly condemn the attack on the professor."
The letter has collected around 1,500 signatures from members of some 20 Christian groups in Hong Kong.
Tai has repeatedly denied supporting Hong Kong independence, but Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily earlier this week called for him to be punished, hinting that the University of Hong Kong might consider firing him.
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.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Chen Pan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.