China has described a primary by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy parties as a “serious provocation,” warning that some campaigning may have breached a tough new security law it imposed on the city.
The comments by the Liaison Office, which represents China’s government in the semi-autonomous city, dramatically heightens the risk of prosecution for opposition parties and leading figures.
More than 600,000 Hong Kongers turned out over the weekend to choose candidates for upcoming legislative elections despite warnings from government officials that the exercise could breach Beijing’s sweeping new law.
Polls for the city’s partially elected legislature are due to take place in September.
Pro-democracy parties are keen to use seething public anger towards Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian rule to win a majority within a chamber that has always been weighted in favor of pro-establishment parties.
Control could give them a greater ability to stall budgets and legislation, one of the few tactics left open to the opposition camp.
But in a statement released late Monday, the Liaison Office said the primaries were “a serious provocation against the current election system.”
It said campaigning that pushed to take control of and paralyze the chamber is a breach of Article 22 of the security law.
Article 22 targets “subverting state power.” It outlaws “serious interference and obstruction” of the central and Hong Kong governments, or any act that causes them to be “unable to perform their functions normally.”
‘Benny Tai gang’
The Liaison Office’s statement also singled out Benny Tai, a prominent democracy activist who played a leading role in organizing the primary.
“The goal of the Benny Tai gang and the opposition camp is to seize power to govern Hong Kong, with a vain attempt to launch a Hong Kong version of a color revolution,” the office said.
Tai, a law professor, has previously been jailed for his involvement in peaceful pro-democracy protests in 2014. On Tuesday, the Apple Daily newspaper published a column by Tai in which he hailed the primaries.
“Threats from the powerful did not deter tens of thousands of citizens from coming out and casting a ballot,” he wrote. “They have not given up on their determination to pursue democracy and universal suffrage.”
Apple Daily is owned by Jimmy Lai, one of the few tycoons in Hong Kong to openly support democracy. He is also being prosecuted for taking part in pro-democracy protests.
Hong Kong has seen waves of pro-democracy demonstrations over the last decade. But last year the city was convulsed by seven straight months of huge and often violent protests.
In response, Beijing imposed its security law in a bid to end the unrest once and for all. The legislation bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature and its contents were kept secret until the law was enacted at the end of last month.
It targets subversion, sedition, terrorism and foreign collusion with penalties of up to life in prison.
But its broad phrasing – such as a ban on encouraging hatred of China’s government – has sent fear rippling through a city used to being able to speak its mind.
Beijing claims jurisdiction over some serious cases and has allowed its intelligence apparatus to set up shop openly in the city for the first time.
Those provisions have ended the legal firewall that existed between the Chinese mainland’s Communist Party-controlled courts and Hong Kong’s independent judiciary.
National security laws are routinely used on the mainland to crush dissent.
China says the Hong Kong legislation is needed to return stability after last year’s protests, which it has portrayed as a foreign plot to destabilize the motherland.
Opponents, including many Western nations, say the law has started to demolish the “One Country, Two Systems” model where China agreed to let Hong Kong retain key civil liberties, as well as legislative and judicial autonomy, until 2047.