HONG KONG banned a political party which promotes independence on Monday, saying it was a threat to national security as Beijing ups pressure on any challenges to its sovereignty.
It is the first ban on a political party since the city was handed back to China by Britain 21 years ago.
Semi-autonomous Hong Kong enjoys freedoms unseen on the mainland including freedom of expression but the space for dissent is shrinking in the face of an increasingly assertive China under President Xi Jinping.
Hong Kong’s security minister John Lee said he had upheld a police request to ban the tiny Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) “in the interest of national security, public safety, public order, and the protection of rights and freedom of others”.
HKNP is a well-known but small group with a core membership of only around a dozen.
Lee told reporters the party “has a very clear agenda to achieve its goal of Hong Kong being made an independent republic”, saying that contravened the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Lee said the party had tried to infiltrate schools and had spread “hatred and discrimination” against mainland Chinese people in Hong Kong.
HKNP had also said it would not stop at force, Lee added, but he conceded it had never committed violence and that its leader, Andy Chan, had advocated non-violence.
Chan said he would not immediately comment on the decision.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called the ban “a milestone in the Beijing and Hong Kong governments’ assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms”.
Lee’s justification that the move was pre-emptive, even though the group had not committed violent acts, set a “dangerous precedent” that could see more pro-democracy groups banned, said HRW’s senior China researcher Maya Wang.
Crackdown on dissent
Police requested the party ban in July under the Societies Ordinance, which stipulates groups can be prohibited in the interests of national security and public safety.
The bid was slammed by rights groups and Britain’s foreign office, which said Hong Kong’s rights must be respected.
Activists calling for Hong Kong’s independence from China emerged after mass pro-democracy rallies in 2014 failed to win reforms.
But pro-independence campaigners including Chan have since been blocked from standing for office and others disqualified from the legislature.
Leading independence activist Edward Leung was jailed for six years in June on rioting charges after clashes with police in 2016.
HKNP has lost momentum over the past two years as the government seeks to muzzle pro-independence sentiment.
However, the party was launched back into the headlines after police sought the ban, with Chan later giving a high-profile talk at the city’s press club which Chinese authorities demanded should be cancelled.
Chan described Beijing as Hong Kong’s “colonial master” in his speech to a packed audience at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in August.
China’s ministry of foreign affairs had asked the FCC to pull the talk but it refused, arguing different views should be heard in any debate.
The Hong Kong government said that while it backed freedom of speech and the press, allowing Chan to speak contravened the city’s mini-constitution.