HONG KONG -- By moving to outlaw a separatist political party under the territory's extant rules, Hong Kong looks to ward off Beijing's push for the island to enact unpopular national security controls.
Local authorities proposed a ban last month against the Hong Kong National Party, a pro-independence party formed in 2016. The territory invoked the "Societies Ordinance," a law enacted during the British colonial era to prohibit the operations of criminal syndicates and other groups "in the interests of national security."
The National Party can appeal the decision before Sept. 4, after which the ban could be formalized. It would be the first use of the law to break up a political party since China took over Hong Kong in 1997.
Andy Chan Ho-tin, an activist who participated in the 2014 Umbrella Movement sit-ins calling for freer elections in Hong Kong, leads the National Party. But even within the island's pro-democracy crowd, the party lacks a large following.
The latest crackdown "reveals a Hong Kong government intent on using various means to keep the separatists under control," said Toru Kurata, a professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo and an expert on Hong Kong politics.
Mainland Chinese leaders watch Hong Kong's independence movement closely.
"China has been vigilant against the independence of Xinjiang Uighur, Tibet and Inner Mongolia, and it views both Hong Kong and Taiwan as surrounding territories" that are part of China as a great power, Kurata said.
The Chinese government has taken a tough stance on a planned talk by the National Party's Ho-tin on Aug.14 which is being organized by the Foreign Correspondents’ Club. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs urged the FCC to call off the event, stressing that it should not offer a venue for anyone who supports the independence of Hong Kong.
On Sunday, Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the city-state's most senior official, said the event was “regrettable and inappropriate.”
But the FCC intends to hold the talk as planned. In a statement released on Monday, the club said freedom of speech was vitally important to a free society.
For years, Beijing has urged Hong Kong to enact anti-subversion legislation as stipulated in the Basic Law, the territory's mini-constitution. But an attempt to pass a bill in 2003 sparked protests involving roughly half a million people, and the resistance to such national security legislation remains palpable.
The clampdown on the National Party hints at the local government showing it can control political activity under existing laws, granting the breathing room needed to further delay passage of a national security bill.
In March, University of Hong Kong associate professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting alluded to Hong Kong independence at a seminar in Taipei, drawing heavy criticism in the China's state media. In June, prominent Hong Kong localist Edward Leung Tin-kei received a six-year jail sentence for rioting during a 2016 protest.
Conscious of the "one country, two systems" framework that governs Hong Kong, Lam vowed during a July 1 speech to uphold the "one country" principle and stand firm against any conduct that would "hit our country's bottom line."
The National Party originally was given 21 days to appeal the ban proposal, but received an extra 28 days on Tuesday, suggesting a cautious approach by authorities.
"The Societies Ordinance will probably only be targeting the Hong Kong National Party," said a source familiar with Hong Kong government dealings.
But this case underscores the tighter restraints on freedom of speech and pro-democracy activities in the territory. Many fear that student groups or those calling for self-determination of political representatives will be next on the hit list.
"If there are no clear standards showing what is legal or illegal, this will have a chilling effect on political activity," said Simon Young, law professor at the University of Hong Kong.