Hong Kong's first domestic security arrest targets Tiananmen activist Chow Hang-tung and her supporters

Screenshot from Chow Hang-tung's club on Facebook. Fair use.

Detained Hong Kong rights activist Chow Hang-tung was among six people arrested by national security police on May 28, 2024, marking the first apprehensions under the city’s new security law, which was enacted in March.

Secretary for Security Chris Tang confirmed on May 28 that the arrests were made in connection with a Facebook group that called for support for barrister and human rights activist Chow, who has been detained under the Beijing-imposed national security law since September 2021. The group was created on May 18, 2023, and the primary location for those who managed it was the UK.

In an earlier statement, police said five men and one woman had been detained on suspicion of acting with seditious intent. One of them, a woman already in custody, was alleged to have continuously published anonymous “seditious” posts on a social media page with the help of the other five.

The posts were said to have made use of an “upcoming sensitive date” to incite hatred against the central and Hong Kong governments, as well as the Judiciary. Police also alleged that the posts were meant to incite netizens to organise or participate in illegal activities at a later time.

“Concerning the sensitive date, actually I think the date itself was not important,” Tang told reporters in Cantonese. “The most important thing is that these people who intend to endanger national security made use of this subject to incite hatred,” he continued.

The arrests came a week before June 4, which this year will mark the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown, when hundreds, if not thousands, died as China’s People’s Liberation Army violently dispersed student protesters in Beijing.

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which Chow used to be vice-chair of, organised annual vigils to remember the victims of the crackdown in Victoria Park until 2020, when the gathering was banned amid the COVID-19 pandemic in order to stop the spread of the virus.

The vigil was banned again in 2021, with police again citing COVID-19, and the Alliance disbanded in September 2021 after its leaders — Chow, Albert Ho and Lee Cheuk-yan — were arrested on suspicion of inciting subversion. There have been no official commemorations held since.

Police searched the homes of five arrestees and seized items related to the case, including electronic devices that were suspected of having been used to publish the alleged posts.

Under the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance, more commonly known as Article 23 legislation, crimes related to seditious intention are punishable by up to seven years behind bars.

“Those who intend to endanger national security should not delude themselves into thinking that they can evade police investigation by posting online anonymously,” police said in a Chinese statement issued on Tuesday afternoon.

“The general public must recognise the truth and not be deceived by false and distorted information,” they added.

Separate from the 2020 Beijing-enacted security law, the homegrown Safeguarding National Security Ordinance targets treason, insurrection, sabotage, external interference, sedition, theft of state secrets and espionage. It allows for pre-charge detention of up to 16 days, and suspects’ access to lawyers may be restricted, with penalties involving up to life in prisonArticle 23 was shelved in 2003 amid mass protests, remaining taboo for years. But, on March 23, 2024, it was enacted, having been fast-tracked and unanimously approved at the city’s opposition-free legislature.

The law has been criticised by rights NGOsWestern states and the UN as vague, broad and “regressive.” Authorities, however, cited perceived foreign interference and a constitutional duty to “close loopholes” after the 2019 protests and unrest.

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