Anti-corruption police in Hong Kong raided the home of an outspoken media magnate and a pro-democracy leader on Thursday amid growing fears over the erosion of press freedom and a more pro-active role by Beijing officials in the city's political life.
The home of Next Media founder Jimmy Lai, whose Apple Daily newspaper is often critical of Beijing, was searched by officers from the former British colony's Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC).
Officers also raided the home of pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan, who is a vocal rights activist and critic of the June 4, 1989, military crackdown on student-led democracy protests on Tiananmen Square.
"The ICAC was here," Lai confirmed to reporters after the search on Thursday.
But he added: "They've all gone now, and there is no further comment."
The ICAC issued a statement saying that it had searched three residences as well as an office in the Legislative Council, but gave no names.
According to Lee, however, the investigation is focusing on donations Lai made to his Labour Party, which do not need to be publicly disclosed under Hong Kong law.
"I don't really understand why he's supposed to have used donations as a form of influence," Lee told reporters. "The Labour Party has long held the view that we need press freedom."
He added: "We have cooperated with the ICAC investigation today, so now it's up to them."
The raids came as the ruling Chinese Communist Party prepares to make public its decision on how the 2017 elections for chief executive of Hong Kong will be run.
Journalists and political commentators say Hong Kong's formerly free press is seeing its "darkest days" yet in what is likely a harbinger of further erosion of the city's traditional freedoms.
In a recent annual report, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) pointed to a series of "grave attacks, both physical and otherwise in the past 12 months," including an attack on former Chinese-language Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau, the sacking of Commercial Radio talk-show host Li Wei-ling and the removal of other prominent journalists from senior editorial positions.
Advertising boycotts by major companies and the refusal of licenses to pro-democracy media, and a major cyber-attack on the Apple Daily website in June, have also been cited as reasons for concern.
Taking to the streets
Organizers of the Occupy Central campaign, which has vowed to take over Hong Kong's downtown financial and shopping district if voters are denied public nominations in the 2017 race for the next chief executive, say half a million took to the streets in a July 1 rally in support of universal suffrage.
And some 800,000 people voted in an informal referendum run by the Occupy campaign in June in support of three different nomination methods, all of which included public nomination options.
But Hong Kong's government has sought to play down the calls, sparking a wave of criticism from pro-democracy and civil society groups.
In a July 15 report to the National People's Congress (NPC), China's rubber-stamp parliament, Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung said the elections would be run according to the special administration territory's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which calls for election candidates to be vetted by a special committee before being approved to run.
In past elections, such a committee has been stacked with pro-Beijing candidates, making the selection of a pro-democratic candidate highly unlikely.
NPC Hong Kong delegate and trade unionist Cheng Yiu-tong said he believes the NPC Standing Committee will rule out public nominations on Sunday.
"Some people in Hong Kong had such big demands, but I must emphasize that the framework for elections shouldn't set limits on anyone, nor should it favor anyone," Cheng said.
"And let's not forget that the framework isn't perfect and complete; it could still be amended in future."
But Occupy co-founder Benny Tai told government broadcaster RTHK that the movement's supporters would gather on Sunday to mark the beginning of a "continuous and long-term" civil disobedience campaign after Beijing officially laid out its framework for political reform.
The campaign would be "peaceful and rational," and its leaders would intervene personally in the event of unruly or violent behavior, Tai said.
He said weekly protests would be held to "arouse awareness" of democracy, while student leaders said thousands of university students were expected to boycott classes in mid-September.
According to legislative councillor Charles Mok, lawmakers still need to decide what their "bottom line" is when debating whether or not to accept the election framework.
"I think the biggest problem with this so-called universal suffrage is the elections won't improve public acceptance of the chief executive and the executive council," he said.
"This problem will only continue."
Beijing has decided that only two or three candidates garnering at least 50-percent backing from a 1,200-member nomination committee will be allowed to stand as candidates in the 2017 race for chief executive, the English-language South China Morning Post newspaper reported on Thursday.
Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.