A pro-independence banner campaign on the campus of one of Hong Kong's most prestigious universities has sparked warnings that public calls for the city's secession from China may be "seditious."
Executive councillor and barrister Ronny Tong said students who put up large black banners reading "Independence for Hong Kong" on the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) campus could have "broken the law."
"There were student activities on the site, distributing pamphlets and there were other posters put up advocating the independence of Hong Kong," Tong told government broadcaster RTHK.
"Such action has the risk of infringing section 9 of the Crimes Ordinance, which provides that if any publication is published with seditious intent then it may well be an offense."
The banners reappeared on Tuesday after authorities at the university's main campus, which saw one of the biggest student demonstrations during the student strike that launched the Occupy Central movement in 2014, took them down on Monday.
The removal of banners on the CUHK campus sparked the appearance of similar banners and posters on campuses across the city, including the University of Hong Kong, the Education University, City University and the University of Science and Technology.
On Tuesday, university officials warned students by letter that public talk of independence was a breach of Hong Kong's miniconstitution, the Basic Law, and university regulations.
Freedom of speech
The student union has rejected the criticisms, saying students will defend their right to exercise freedom of speech.
"We are still looking for people who can stand guard over these banners and posters in Culture Square," union leader Justin Au told journalists.
"We will try to persuade them, and to question the rational basis for trying to remove the banners in a place where students congregate," he said. "However, we will do our utmost to prevent physical clashes of any kind."
Former Occupy Central student leader Tommy Cheung said Tong's claims made no sense, however.
"What law has been broken; they will have to say what law has been broken," Cheung said. "Nobody has been charged over this, for just talking about Hong Kong independence ... when there has been no concrete action."
"Just discussing something doesn't break the law, but this attempt to move the goalposts is very problematic," he said. "Freedom of speech and the autonomy of the students' union are inviolable, regardless of their stance [on independence]."
Hong Kong University student union leader Wong Ching Tak said CUHK had overreacted.
"Regardless of whether or not you support the idea of Hong Kong independence, I think it was important to take this action based on our support for universal values," Wong said.
Traditional freedoms seen eroding
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, has vowed to fight "pro-independence forces" in the city and begin fostering a sense of Chinese identity among very young children, sparking fears that she will try to brainwash them into loyalty to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
Lam, who took office on the 20th anniversary of the July 1, 1997 handover to Chinese rule, said her administration would "strictly" enforce existing law, which she said bans "pro-independence behavior."
Recent opinion polls by the University of Hong Kong found that 37 percent of respondents identified as Hongkongers, and 21 percent as Chinese, while others chose more ambiguous options like "Hongkongers in China" or "Chinese in Hong Kong."
But only 3.1 percent of the 18-28 age group said they identified as Chinese, the lowest result since the poll began in 1997.
And a recent opinion poll commissioned by the pro-Beijing group Silent Majority for Hong Kong showed that while more than 70 percent of respondents overall strongly supported Beijing's view that independence for the city will never be an option, only 51 percent of people aged 18-29 agreed with the Communist Party's position.
Some 43 percent said they disagreed.
In June, Zhang Xiaoming, the ruling Chinese Communist Party's envoy to the city, warned that young Hong Kong people would be unable to realize their life goals if they were "led astray" by such ideas.
Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy" and the continuation of its existing freedoms of speech, association and publication under the terms of the 1997 handover to China.
But a string of legal interpretations by China's parliament of the Basic Law, as well as cross-border detentions of five Hong Kong booksellers, have left many fearing that the city's traditional freedoms, and its judicial independence, have been seriously eroded.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.