Hong Kong police are investigating a campus protest over suspected violations of a security law imposed by China’s central government, fueling growing concerns about curbs on freedom of expression in the Asian financial center.
The Hong Kong Police Force’s newly established national security department has begun probing reports that protesters advocated for independence from China during a demonstration Thursday at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), the police said in a statement. Protesters “displayed banners and flags, as well as chanted slogans advocating ‘Hong Kong independence,’” and vandalized the campus with spray paint, the police said.
“Police attach great importance to and severely condemn the blatant violation of the National Security Law and criminal damages at the campus,” the police said.
China’s top legislative body imposed the measure banning secession, terrorism, subversion and collusion with foreign forces on June 30 without debate by local lawmakers. While Chief Executive Carrie Lam has sought to play down limits on constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of speech and expression, the government has invoked the law to ban support for Hong Kong independence or even more ambiguous slogans such as “Liberate Hong Kong! Revolution of our times!”
The legislation has spurred a debate about academic freedom at the city’s universities, which have long been among the most highly rated in Asia. The CUHK campus was among those that became scenes of tense and sometimes violent standoffs between protesters and police last year during a wave of pro-democracy demonstrations.
Chinese University said in a statement that it called the police to report the protest, which it said disrupted a “solemn” graduation ceremony.
“The university strongly condemns such illegal acts and irresponsible behavior,” CUHK said, urging student leaders to notify their peers about the legal risks of such activities.
The police unit responsible for enforcing the law has so far made 29 arrests. Most of the cases involve non-violent allegations such as chanting slogans, waiving banners or publishing online material deemed secessionist.
Foreign governments led by the U.S. and U.K. have strongly condemned the new security measures for eroding the city’s freedoms. Several Western democracies have suspended extradition agreements, and on Thursday the Five Eyes intelligence partnership compromising Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the U.K. and the U.S. called on China to “live up to” its commitments to Hong Kong.
Protests have largely dissipated with COVID-19 social-distancing measures and the introduction of the security law, which has effectively outlawed any sort of protest. Still, small groups of activists have occasionally gathered in malls or on the streets since the law was passed this summer.
Earlier this week, three ex-Hong Kong lawmakers were arrested in connection with a disruptive protest in the Legislative Council against a law criminalizing criticism of China’s national anthem. Those arrests followed the mass resignation last week of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition in protest of China passing new measures allowing Hong Kong’s government to eject sitting lawmakers for being insufficiently patriotic.
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