Hong Kong police on Friday raided the offices of a polling organization tasked with running primaries that will select pro-democracy candidates in September's Legislative Council (LegCo) elections.
The raid, shown in a video livestream by Hong Kong's StandNews, came as a high-ranking official warned that the primaries could breach a draconian security law imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party on June 30.
Police were seen entering the offices of the Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) office in Wong Chuk Hang district, the livestream showed.
Officers at the scene said they were investigating allegations of "dishonest use of a personal computer," and confiscated computers at the scene with a warrant, StandNews reported.
The 2020 Hong Kong pro-democracy primaries are scheduled for July 11-12 and will select candidates from several pro-democracy groups and parties in the hope of winning at least 35 LegCo seats, the minimum number needed to vote down government legislation including the city's annual budget.
A spokesman for PORI said the primaries would go ahead as planned, writer and activist Kong Tsung-gan said via his Twitter account, citing HK01.com.
Chung Kim-wah, assistant professor of social policy at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University who works with PORI, said the raid could be linked to a recent hacker attack on the institution's computers.
"PORI has received complaints that personal information has been leaked," Chung said, adding that the data and software needed to run the primaries wasn't stored on the computers seized in the police raid, and that the election shouldn't be affected.
"The police have taken dozens of our computers for their investigation, but this won't affect [the election] because that will take place on a different system," he said.
Asked if he thought the timing of the raid was suspicious, Chung replied: "I don't really want to speculate, but I have to say that it's a huge coincidence."
He said the data on the seized computers was related to PORI's most recent public opinion poll, and had been anonymized.
The primaries were set up as a way to maximize the chances of a majority for pro-democracy candidates, who swept the board in District Council elections in November 2019, in a ringing public endorsement for the city's months-long pro-democracy movement.
The election, organized by legal scholar and Occupy Central founder Benny Tai and former lawmaker Au Nok-hin, and coordinated by Power for Democracy, will use a voting system designed by PORI.
Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang warned that the election might violate the security law, because it was set up with the objective of blocking the passage of government legislation in LegCo.
Tsang said the elections could therefore be seen to breach provisions of the National Security Law for Hong Kong, which bans secession, subversion, and collusion with overseas powers.
But Tai said a pro-democracy victory wouldn't be "seriously interfering in, disrupting, or undermining the performance of duties and functions" of the government, as proscribed by the law, because chief executive Carrie Lam has the power to dissolve LegCo and call a by-election.
Everyone now at risk
Before the raid was reported, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong said everyone in the pro-democracy camp, which has extensive outreach networks with democratic nations around the world, is now potentially at risk under the law.
"Right now, any Hong Kong politician who continues to work on international initiatives ... simply doesn't know if they will remain at liberty, should they return here," Wong told journalists.
"Local politicians face an even greater sense of fear, caution, and chilling effect, but ... we are hoping that people will be able to overcome these fears," he said.
Veteran rights activist and trade unionist Lee Cheuk-yan said his Alliance in Support of the Patriotic Democracy Movement in China would go ahead with activities as normal, although many of his fellow activists are now being followed and their communications monitored.
"It's very hard to predict [how it will turn out] because everything is based on political considerations," Lee told RFA. "If they want to kill the chickens to frighten the monkeys, then they can enforce the law very strictly, but then they may face considerable pressure from the international community."
"So maybe they won't be in a hurry ... but they move fairly quickly when they do move," he said. "When or if this happens depends on [Beijing's] political concerns and the [ruling Chinese Communist Party's] red lines."
"We have no way of knowing what those will be," he said.
Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) politics lecturer Nelson Lee said the new law wasn't created by the common law legal system used in Hong Kong since the start of the British colonial era.
"Of course there will be a chilling effect and a deterrent, because nobody really knows right now how this law is going to be enforced," Lee said.
"But its functions are by no means limited to intimidation and deterrence; Beijing can and definitely will use it when it thinks it necessary," he said.
Reported by Man Hoi-tsan and Sing Ho for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.