On Wednesday evening, police arrested four former members of the pro-independence group Studentlocalism on suspicion of inciting secession in the first major roundup of activists under the new national security law.

Officers from the newly-established National Security Department detained three males and one female, aged 16-21, including 19-year-old ex-convenor Tony Chung, ex-spokesperson Ho Nok-hang, as well as ex-members Yanni Ho and Chan Wai-jin, according to local media. All have been denied bail.

Tony Chung Hon-lam
Tony Chung Hon-lam. Photo: HKFP.

HKFP rounds up the latest reactions.

Hong Kong student unions

Thirteen local university student unions released a joint statement hours after the arrests, under the heading: “Hong Kong has fallen into the Era of White Terror.”

Students’ Unions of Higher Institutions hereby urge Hongkongers not to connive at the atrocities of the communist regime but to stand up against the oppression by any feasible means. To the tyrannical communist puppets, we warn that the world is watching. Any further crimes you commit will not go unseen.

It is crystal clear that more and more Hongkongers would have to endure the Communist terror. But as Samuel Beckett, an Irish poet, said, ‘I can’t go on. I will go on.’ Hongkongers shall uphold the ‘Be-Water’ spirit and continue to fight on in the darkest times. In the past year, Hongkongers have fought the battle against tyranny as if it was our last, revealing the Chinese communist regime’s true colour and unearthing its malignant nature. The free world has stood with Hongkongers against Communist aggression. Perseverance is vital to winning the war against tyranny. We shall continue defending Hong Kong with hope until widespread of the flames of resistance. May glory be to Hong Kong.

In full: list of student unions – click to view
  • The Hong Kong University Students’ Union.
  • The Provisional Executive Committee, The Student Union of The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
  • Lingnan University Students’ Union.
  • City University of Hong Kong Students’ Union.
  • The Student Union of Hong Kong Shue Yan University.
  • The Hang Seng University of Hong Kong Students’ Union.
  • The Open University of Hong Kong Students’ Union.
  • Tung Wah College Students’ Union.
  • The Hong Kong Polytechnic University Students’ Union.
  • The Hong Kong Baptist University Students’ Union Acting-Executive Committee.
  • The Education University of Hong Kong Students’ Union.
  • The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Students’ Union.

Sunny Cheung

Activist and democratic election hopeful Sunny Cheung warned of “white terror” under the controversial law.

“This is a deliberated tactic by the [Chinese Communist Party] to arrest local student leaders who may not be as well known as Joshua Wong or Nathan Law in order to avoid an immediate backfiring and [criticism] from the international community.

Nobody is immune from the purge, destined to follow after the clamping down on Studentlocalism. As the government attempts to distract media attention by pretentiously fighting Covid-19, Hongkongers must stand in solidarity.

Keeping our eyes on our enemies is the sole way to survival.”

Nathan Law

Exiled activist and former lawmaker Nathan Law told US Senator Marsha Blackburn during a live interview that the arrests demonstrated how the security law targets “peoples’ freedom of expression.”

“We mustn’t lose sight on this troubling, rapidly-changing white terror, politics of fear… in Hong Kong under [the] national security law. This is the first case [involving] an individual [who was] arrested on the doorstep under the national security law. It targets activists and quashes freedom of expression [for] Hong Kong people. Please be aware of it,” he wrote in a separate tweet.

US China Commission

The chairs of the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China – Representative Jim McGovern and co-chair Senator Marco Rubio – highlighted concerns over the potential retroactiveness of the security law.

Studentlocalism did not disband but shifted its operations overseas before the enactment of the law; its former members were arrested for social media posts advocating Hong Kong independence by “all means,” according to senior superintendent of the new national security department Steve Li.

“Concerns for retroactive application of [the security law] are renewed, as [the] Hong Kong government arrests Tony Chung and three others whose political group disbanded [sic] before the law went into effect. The chairs call on [the] Hong Kong government to drop charges and for the UN to establish a special rapporteur for Hong Kong.”

Human Rights Watch

Sophia Richardson, China director of New York-headquartered NGO Human Rights Watch, called on foreign governments to impose sanctions on central and local authorities.

“The gross misuse of this draconian law makes clear that the aim is to silence dissent, not protect national security. The arrests also raise chilling concerns of a broader crackdown on political parties as the [Legislative Council] elections approach.

Concerned governments should step up their response and impose targeted sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese government officials responsible for drafting and enforcing the National Security Law, which robs Hong Kong people of their basic human rights.”

Amnesty International.

Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin warned a “chill” throughout Hong Kong society.

This first coordinated police operation to enforce Hong Kong’s national security law is a significant, and alarming, moment for the right to freedom of expression in the city. According to police statements, all those detained have been targeted solely for peacefully expressing their views. It is also worrying that the authorities stressed their investigative power over ‘offences’ outside Hong Kong.

That four young people could potentially face life imprisonment on the basis of some social media posts lays bare the draconian nature of the national security law. The idea that anybody can now be jailed for expressing their political opinion on Facebook or Instagram will send a chill throughout Hong Kong society.

International human rights laws do not allow states to restrict all peaceful expression in the name of national security. No one should be arrested solely for expressing an opinion that is contrary to that of the government.“The Hong Kong authorities must stop using national security as a pretext to excessively restrict freedom of expression and other human rights.

Hong Kong Watch

UK-based NGO Hong Kong Watch released a brief statement via Twitter sounding alarm over the arrests.

“The speed with which Beijing are using this law to make arrests is alarming. These charges are vaguely defined and carry disproportionate sentencing.”

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

Update 30.7.20: this piece was updated to include ex-member of Studentlocalism Chan Wai-jin in the list of arrested persons.

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Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.