On Wednesday, Hong Kong police rounded up four former members of pro-independence group Studentlocalism – aged 16 to 21 – on suspicion of inciting secession under the Beijing-implemented national security law. The group’s ex-convenor Tony Chung, 19, became the first political figure to be arrested under the controversial legislation, which also criminalises subversion, terrorist acts and collusion with foreign forces.

Tony Chung.
Tony Chung. Cartoon: Badiucao.

Studentlocalism was disbanded on June 30, hours before the sweeping new law kicked in. The group announced plans to operate from abroad with divisions in Australia, Taiwan and the US: “[The overseas branches] will continue to move forward until Hong Kong becomes an independent sovereign country.”

Steve Li, a senior superintendent of the new police national security department, told reporters on Wednesday night that the arrests were based on the content of social media accounts, without naming the groups or posts involved. According to police, the posts conveyed calls to unite all pro-independence groups and claimed they would use all means to establish a republic of Hong Kong.

Who is Tony Chung?

In April 2016, Chung – who was 15 at the time – co-founded Studentlocalism with three other secondary school students. According to the group’s guiding principles on Facebook, they aimed to create a Hong Kong republic that would enjoy independent sovereignty.

Studentlocalism’s flags at a street booth. Photo: Studentlocalism, via Facebook.

They also vowed to promote the concept of independence on campus by setting up student concern groups. By the end of August that year, 28 localist concern groups were being formed at schools across the city.

One of their most high-profile actions was distributing pro-independence leaflets and stickers outside campuses on September 1, the day when local students returned to schools after two months of summer vacation.

The then-chief executive Leung Chun-ying lambasted the student-led action and said independence talk in schools was not a “matter of freedom of speech.” He warned students could be expelled for promoting such ideology and likened it to using foul language on campus.

Leung Chun-ying
Former chief executive Leung Chun-ying. File photo: GovHK.

“What more can be discussed? Therefore if students really need to discuss it in schools, the stance of schools and teachers should be clear: that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China,” he said.

Chung and other Studentlocalism leaders had been “investigated” by state-owned newspaper Wen Wei Po, which claimed the youngsters had connections with other “radical figures” such as ex-lawmaker Wong Yuk-man and pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong.

Chung was also reportedly shadowed by three retired local police officers during a trip to Taiwan last year.

In an interview with HKFP in 2017, Chung said he thought the city’s former leader Leung had put student pro-independence groups on the map.

When asked why he supported independence, Chung said: “I was born here, I grew up here. We often see the situation in China – it’s exactly why we do not want the place we live in to become the same as China.”

Tony Chung Hon-lam
Tony Chung Hon-lam at a street stand at the annual July 1 march in 2017. Photo: HKFP.

He told HKFP at the time that he was struggling to decide whether to remain in the city, as uncertainties emerged after the incumbent Chief Executive Carrie Lam took office in July 2017.

Chung predicted: “In the next five years the national security law may be enacted, or I may be charged with some offence… I can’t say it is a must for me to stay.”

The momentum of the city’s localist movement ebbed in late 2016, when localist lawmakers Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching were ousted from the legislature in November, while former localist Edward Leung became entangled in court cases related to his involvement in the 2016 Mong Kok unrest. He was later sentenced to six years behind bars.

Leading localist group – the Hong Kong National Party – was outlawed by the government in September 2018. Secretary for Security John Lee said the decision was made in the interest of national security and public order.

independence january 1 civil front causeway bay
Photo: May James/HKFP.

The three co-founders of Studentlocalism withdrew from the group during the period, as Chung and the remaining members set up street booths sporadically to promote independence.

But the group became active again during the year-long pro-democracy movement last June, triggered by a now-axed extradition bill. The group had attempted to organise a few large-scale demonstrations, including a march in Kowloon on June 7 and a Hong Kong Island march on June 16 to mark one year since the “two-million-strong” procession.

Chanting of slogans in favour of independence also became popular at recent demonstrations, in opposition to Beijing’s move to insert the controversial security legislation into Annex lll of the city’s mini constitution. Demonstrators often belted out “Hong Kong independence, the only way out” and “Hongkongers, build a nation,” despite risking arrests under the new law.

YouTube video

But their applications for marches were rejected by police, citing the coronavirus gathering restrictions. The force also said Studentlocalism had advocated “valiant resistance” and previous marches under the same theme had escalated into “serious violent law-breaking behaviour,” to justify the objection.

Prior to Chung’s arrest on Wednesday, the former Studentlocalism leader was involved in another legal case, after he was accused of damaging the Chinese national flag at the Legislative Council’s protest zone last May.

Initiative Independence Party

There has been speculation that the social media content mentioned by police on Wednesday was posted by the Initiative Independence Party. The group said it was founded by former Studentlocalism members who had completed their studies and were based overseas.

According to the group’s establishment declaration, it mentioned the “only way out” for Hong Kong is to build a republic that is “solely sovereign to Hong Kong nationals.” They also vowed to promote their advocacy of independence to Hongkongers living abroad and other “freedom-loving” people around the world.

“Initiative Independence Party, with Hong Kong independence as our ultimate target, will fight using any means possible in order to expel Chinese colonisers from our land,” the group wrote.

Chung was released on bail on Friday without being charged. However, he had to remove the social media posts in question and report to a police station on a weekly basis.

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Ho Long Sze Kelly is a Hong Kong-based journalist covering politics, criminal justice, human rights, social welfare and education. As a Senior Reporter at Hong Kong Free Press, she has covered the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests and the Covid-19 pandemic extensively, as well as documented the transformation of her home city under the Beijing-imposed national security law.

Kelly has a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the University of Hong Kong, with a second major in Politics and Public Administration. Prior to joining HKFP in 2020, she was on the frontlines covering the 2019 citywide unrest for South China Morning Post’s Young Post. She also covered sports and youth-related issues.