Benny Tai, one of the initiators of Hong Kong's 2014 Occupy Central democracy movement, is at the center of a storm of criticism from government officials and pro-Beijing politicians after he made speculative remarks about the possibility of independence for the city at an academic forum in Taiwan.
Tai, who has since warned that he is likely being followed and photographed by "a powerful department," had mused at the forum that Hong Kong, along with other parts of China, might consider options including independence in the event that China became a democratic country.
But his comments prompted an unprecedented rebuke from the Hong Kong government, which "strongly condemned" Tai's remarks.
"The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government is shocked by the remarks made by a university teaching staff member that Hong Kong could consider becoming an independent state, and strongly condemns such remarks," it said in a statement on its official website.
Dozens of pro-democracy politicians, civil rights groups and activists issued a statement on Wednesday condemning the criticism of Tai and defending his right to freedom of expression.
"They are weaving a web that will put an end academic freedom and freedom of expression in Hong Kong," Gary Fan, a pro-democracy member of the city's Legislative Council, told journalists. "That's why we have come here today along with a large number of civil groups to stand up in unity, and express our support for Benny Tai."
"We also want to express our strong dissatisfaction and protest against yet another instance of government allegations of rule-breaking on the basis of words taken out of context," he said.
For his part, Tai now fears for his personal safety after being photographed while briefly visiting a location he says nobody should have been aware that he was in.
"Because of this, I really feel as if there is a threat to my personal freedom," Tai wrote on his Facebook page after the photograph appeared in Hong Kong's pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao newspaper, which has close ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.
"I would like to say for the record that if you see me leaving Hong Kong by any route, either alone or in company, please could you ask me if I am leaving Hong Kong of my own free will," he wrote, adding that he has no plans to travel to mainland China or Macau, and that his presence there would be the result of an unwilling departure from Hong Kong.
Making an example of him
Tai's warning comes after the abduction and cross-border detentions of five Hong Kong booksellers, wanted by Chinese authorities for selling "banned books" to customers across the internal immigration border in mainland China.
Bookseller Lee Bo was taken from his place of work in Hong Kong, while publisher Gui Minhai remains in detention after being taken from his holiday home in Thailand in October 2015.
In February 2016, the U.K. accused Beijing of breaching a treaty governing the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, by "involuntarily removing" Lee to mainland China.
Tai has also said he believes that the government is making an example of him ahead of planned national security legislation under Article 23 of Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and that his comments have set a new benchmark for forbidden speech in the formerly freewheeling city.
"I have become the red-line drawn by Beijing," he wrote on his Twitter account on Wednesday. "Whoever supports me will be brushed to one side of the line and taken to be [supporters of independence]."
He earlier told journalists that the Hong Kong government's strongly critical statement may point to "worrying" restrictions on public speech, once the new Article 23 laws are enacted.
"If the new baseline now is that even if it may not involve violence, even if it may not involve other criminal actions, just merely speech will be sufficient for people to have [committed] those offenses, then that would be something Hong Kong people must seriously consider," he said in comments reported by government broadcaster RTHK.
Hong Kong officials denied that any link existed, however. The city's second-in-command Matthew Cheung on Thursday dismissed any link between the government's statement on Tai and Article 23.
"The government's stance is that any advocacy of independence for Hong Kong is in breach of the Basic Law," Cheung said. "Neither is it in keeping with the interests of Hong Kong and its development in the long term."
"It is unnecessary to link this incident with Article 23," he said.
Beyond the limits
Fellow academics hit out on Wednesday at what they said was an attack on freedom of speech.
Kenneth Chan, a politics and international relations professor at Hong Kong’s Baptist University, called on the University of Hong Kong to speak out in support of academic freedom.
"Universities can't act as enforcers for the ruling class," Chan told RFA. "If the university had any role in this affair, then it should go back to doing its primary job, which is to allow different opinions and debate, as well as different political views to flourish."
But University of Science and Technology Professor Dixon Sing said many people have become tired of the pro-democracy camp's rhetoric about democracy and human rights in recent years.
"Benny Tai is a force behind the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and one of the leaders of the Occupy Central movement, but a large section of the population is actually pretty tired of politics and of talk of democracy and human rights," Sing told RFA.
"I think Beijing is hoping that more people will get sick of hearing this stuff, which will ensure that the Article 23 legislation passes as a matter of course," he said.
Meanwhile, Sing told reporters that there should be no limits placed on freedom of speech beyond the advocacy of violence or defamation, RTHK reported.
Pro-Beijing politician Tam Yiu-chung, who represents Hong Kong at China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), said Tai's comments had gone far beyond the sphere of academic debate, however.
"This person doesn't just stick to academic research," Tam said. "He actually has a lot of activism going on in the background ... at least a dozen plans on the go, who's to say?"
"In Taiwan, he was speaking at an event linked to advocates of Taiwan independence ... about Hong Kong independence," Tam said. "Perhaps this goes beyond the limits of academic research and freedom of speech."
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Chen Pan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.