Authorities in Hong Kong are considering an outright ban on a separatist political organization, the first time the city's government has sought to police its citizens' freedom of speech and association on the grounds of "national security" since the 1997 handover to China.
The city's secretary for security John Lee said he had received a police recommendation to issue an order to ban the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) from operating in the city under a law governing civil society.
The law states that the police may recommend such a course of action if they believe the move is "necessary in the interests of national security or public safety, public order or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others," the Hong Kong government said in a statement on its website on Tuesday.
The HKNP now has 21 days to submit written arguments against the proposed ban.
"In Hong Kong we have freedom of association, but that right is not without restrictions," Lee told reporters. "We are acting in accordance with the laws of Hong Kong."
HKNP leader Chan Ho-tin confirmed on Tuesday that he had been visited by a police officer who handed him a letter.
"The letter said that the Secretary for Security can make an order under the Societies Ordinance to prohibit the operation of the Hong Kong National Party," Chan told RFA. "There is a deadline for my response."
Chan declined to comment before taking legal advice, but said he wasn't surprised. The move comes after the party was denied permission to register as a legal entity.
"This sort of suppression is only to be expected, and it shows that the human rights situation in Hong Kong is deteriorating and that there is no rule of law in Hong Kong anymore," Chan said.
‘Chinese colonial rulers’
The HKNP, which seeks to build a "Republic of Hong Kong" as a city-state independent of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, hit out at the move in a statement on Tuesday, saying it is the work of "an increasingly insecure government" and the city's "Chinese colonial rulers."
"What is their “national security,” their “laws,” and their banning of operations but a purely political decision to silence those who dare to represent the true interests of the Hong Kong people and nation?" the statement said.
"The Hong Kong nationalist and independence movements are, at their core, both struggles to fight back and drive out the Chinese colonizers," it said, adding that it was antagonism towards "the Chinese colonizers and their puppets in the Hong Kong government" that defines the movement.
The announcement also prompted a public outcry from rights groups and opposition politicians.
Patrick Poon, China researcher at Amnesty International, said: "This is a chilling day for freedom of association and freedom of expression in Hong Kong, with potentially far-reaching consequences."
"To use sweeping references to ‘national security’ to silence dissenting voices is a tactic favored by repressive governments," Poon said. "The authorities must stop using vague laws to intimidate people who hold different political views."
He said the attempt to ban the Hong Kong National Party raises concerns over who the government will target next in the name of national security.
"Under international law and standards, any prohibition of an organization is subject to a strict test of justification, with the burden of proof on the government to demonstrate that a real, not just hypothetical, danger to national security exists," Poon said, in answer to Lee's claim that the potential ban was in keeping with international human rights covenants.
Professional Commons lawmaker Charles Mok said banning the HKNP would only "make the problem worse."
"This is definitely suppression for political reasons," Mok said. "We can only express our shock, and feel that this is completely unreasonable."
‘Eye on Demosisto’
Former student leader of the 2014 democracy movement and disqualified lawmaker Nathan Law said that his current political party, Demosisto, could be next.
Demosisto, like the HKNP, has also been denied permission to register as a legal entity, and Law was among six lawmakers to be stripped of their seats following an intervention by the National People's Congress in Beijing since 2016. Law also cited the debarring of would-be Demosisto candidate Agnes Chow from a recent by-election, on the basis of her political views.
"Beijing has had its eye on Demosisto for some time now, to the extent that nobody from the party is able to take part in elections for the Legislative Council (LegCo)," Law said.
"The disqualification of Agnes Chow at the last election made it very clear that nobody with ties to the party would be allowed to run," he said. "I think we have to face up to the fact that it will be we who are targeted next."
Hong Kong First lawmaker Claudia Mo agreed that the move would open up the whole of Hong Kong's formerly vibrant political scene to top-down control and censorship.
"The government's action shows that anyone can become a target. Anyone could be a sitting duck as far as the government is concerned," Mo was quoted by government broadcaster RTHK as saying.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.