TIME Hong Kong

The British Once Considered Moving the Entire Population of Hong Kong to Northern Ireland

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An official at the Northern Ireland office was inspired by a university lecturer's proposal to "transplant" Hong Kong to Northern Ireland

(LONDON) — A bizarre plan to relocate the entire population of Hong Kong to Northern Ireland was considered an option in the uncertain years before Britain handed back the former British colony to Chinese rule, formerly classified government files showed.

Britain’s National Archives on Friday released a 1983 government file called “Replantation of Northern Ireland from Hong Kong,” which showed British officials discussing a far-fetched proposal to settle 5.5 million Hong Kong people in a newly built “city state” between Coleraine and Londonderry.

George Fergusson, an official at the Northern Ireland office, was inspired by a university lecturer’s proposal to “transplant” Hong Kong to Northern Ireland — a move that would supposedly revitalize the local economy as well as save Hong Kong, which the lecturer believed had “no future on its present site.”

“At this stage we see real advantages in taking the proposal seriously,” Fergusson wrote in a memo to a colleague in the Foreign Office.

While it wasn’t clear if Fergusson was writing tongue-in-cheek, the droll reply he received showed that it wasn’t taken seriously.

“My initial reaction … is that the proposal could be useful to the extent that the arrival of 5.5 million Chinese in Northern Ireland may induce the indigenous peoples to forsake their homeland for a future elsewhere,” quipped David Snoxell at the Republic of Ireland Department. “We should not underestimate the danger of this taking the form of a mass exodus of boat refugees in the direction of South East Asia.”

An official scribbled in the margins: “My mind will be boggling for the rest of the day.”

Though outlandish, the idea illustrated anxieties at the time about the future of Hong Kong. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher began talks with China on the topic in 1982. Two years later, the two sides agreed that the city would return to Chinese rule in 1997.

TIME Hong Kong

In Hong Kong, Thousands March Toward a Political Impasse

Human Rights Front Gather For July 1st Protest
Anthony Kwan—Getty Images Protesters march on a street during a rally as they hold banners and shout slogans on July 1, 2015 in Hong Kong.

On an annual day of protest, marchers call for democratic freedoms that Beijing is unwilling to grant

In the years since Queen Elizabeth relinquished her last major colony to China in 1997, Hong Kong has frequently commemorated July 1 — the anniversary of the “handover,” as it’s known here — as a day of demonstration, with thousands marching through the sweltering metropolis to air their political grievances. It makes sense: after all, under the political agreement between the U.K. and China, Hong Kong would operate as a quasi-democracy under the umbrella of Chinese rule, and in the democratic imaginary, the right to assembly is axiomatic.

Beyond that, though, there are no real reliable axioms when it comes to democracy in Hong Kong, other than that, for this Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, democracy itself may be an illusion. Nine months have passed since the beginning of the Umbrella Revolution, when hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers besieged the city’s busiest districts to push for a greater say in how their leader is chosen. But, 12 days ago, Hong Kong lawmakers vetoed the government’s showpiece electoral bill because it required all candidates for the city’s top job to undergo screening by Beijing. It is now highly unlikely that the central government will consider other reform proposals for some time.

That leaves the pro-democracy movement at an impasse. At last year’s July 1 demonstrations — in hindsight, a prologue to the Umbrella Revolution — Hong Kongers called for political upheaval; today, they gather to sit shivah for the stalemate, but also to contemplate their next move.

“This is a day when we restart our campaign — when we ask ourselves what we can do next,” Johnson Cheung, who leads the pro-democratic Civil Human Rights Front, says.

The Hong Kong government is also groping for a way forward. As activists burned an SAR flag outside an official ceremony to mark the 18th anniversary of the handover this morning, Leung Chun-ying, the incumbent chief executive (as the highest official in Hong Kong is called) sought relief in pocketbook issues.

“The government needs the support and cooperation of the entire community if we are to boost the economy and improve the livelihood of the people of Hong Kong,” he told assembled dignitaries.

Underscoring the gulf between the city’s democratic and pro-Beijing camps, Leung also appeared to suggest that a freer political system would not be able to solve Hong Kong’s serious social ills — among them appalling income inequality and sluggish social mobility. “As the experience of some European democracies shows,” he said, “democratic systems and procedures are no panacea for economic and livelihood issues.”

In the mid-afternoon, thousands began to assemble at Victoria Park — a rare greensward in this densely packed city, serving as the march’s starting point and as a traditional place of protest. Many demonstrators carried the colonial-era Hong Kong flag, not as a demonstration of loyalty to Britain but as a defiant assertion of the city’s origins as an international entrepot and the emblem of what they believe to have been a better time. In contrast to the almost carnival atmosphere of previous marches, the mood this year appeared subdued and numbers appeared notably fewer than previous years. Organizers blamed political fatigue.

“At this point, there’s not much we can do politically,” said marcher Thomas Yan, vice chairman of the pro-democracy party People Power. “All we can do now, and in the future, is focus on civic education — on informing the people.”

Marcher Maria Chen agreed that Hong Kong needed to reflect on its next move. “I don’t know what’s next for Hong Kong,” she said. “I hope they listen to us, but I think Hong Kong needs to figure it out for itself. Our future should lie in our hands.”

Less than a hundred meters up Hennessy Road, police officers stood between marchers and a group of pro-Beijing demonstrators staging a counter rally. As tensions flared and verbal barbs were traded, the pro-Beijing camp turned up the volume on its loudspeaker and blared the Chinese national anthem — a melody that Hong Kong soccer supporters have recently taken to jeering at international matches.

“After the democrats vetoed the [government’s electoral bill], we realized we needed a new direction,” Agnes Chow, a senior member of the student activist group Scholarism, told TIME earlier. “We’re in a very passive position politically, because any attempt at constitutional reform is going to be led by the central government in Beijing.”

Passive is an interesting choice of word, coming from someone who was at the forefront of the Umbrella Revolution — the largest and most violent political demonstration in China since the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989. Chow is uncertain what will come next, but is keen to note that tensions continue to mount.

It isn’t just rhetoric. Late Sunday night, Joshua Wong, the outspoken 18-year-old activist who has emerged as a figurehead of Hong Kong’s democratic zeitgeist, was leaving a movie with his girlfriend when an unknown assailant “grabbed [his] neck, and punched [his] left eye,” he tells TIME. Earlier that evening and mere blocks away, a group of “localists” — those in favor of far greater Hong Kong autonomy, even complete independence, from China — staged a rally to protest the politically and culturally provocative presence of street musicians from mainland China. Violence quickly erupted between the localists and members of pro-China groups, who turned up to support the musicians.

“My own view is that this is predictable,” David Zweig, a professor of social sciences at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, tells TIME. “We can see a shift from civil disobedience and towards more violence. People are becoming more frustrated with the fact that Beijing has made no concessions.”

Those on the march appeared to understand this political reality. “So long as the Beijing government is insisting we don’t have a way out, legislative reform can hardly happen,” Ken Wu, a 27-year-old social worker, told TIME.

The SAR government is not in a conciliatory mood either. During his address at today’s official ceremony, Chief Executive Leung spoke of the “serious threats to social order and the rule of law” posed by last year’s Umbrella Revolution, and warned that the city’s development would be seriously impeded if democratic legislators continued to block the government’s legislative agenda.

“All we ask is for the citizens of Hong Kong to respect the system,” Po Chun-chung, of the pro-Beijing Defend Hong Kong Campaign, said, as the march went by. Many demonstrators, tired of what they see as the mainland’s encroachment on the city’s autonomy, and its reneging on promises of genuine democracy, would like to ask Beijing to do the same.

“The [mainland] Chinese have gotten dirtier and dirtier,” said Eric, a 32-year-old protester. “They get their hands into our lives and we don’t have any way to fight back. This is the only way.”

—With reporting by Joanna Plucinska and Alissa Greenberg/Hong Kong

TIME China

Greece Is Keeping Chinese Stocks From Rebounding

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STR—AFP/Getty Images

The global market sell-off came at a rough time for Chinese stocks

Uncertainty over Greece’s debt crisis battered global stocks on Monday morning, as the troubled country dealt with bank closures and placed limits on ATM withdrawals.

The global sell-off was particularly poorly timed for the Chinese stock market, which retreated into a bear market early Monday after the country’s central bank cut interest rates over the weekend in a move meant to bolster the market. China’s stock market, which fell more than 7% on Friday, started this morning moving upward before quickly reversing, leaving the market down more than 20% from highs earlier this month.

The Shanghai Composite index ended the day down 3.3%, while the Shenzhen exchange closed down more than 6% and Hong Kong’s Hang Seng dropped 2.6%.

The recent sell-off has hit several large Chinese companies particularly hard, with train maker CRRC Corporation’s stock down more than 50% from its peak price, according to The Wall Street Journal. Fellow transportation companies such as China Railway and BYD have also seen their shares drop by 45% and 40% from their respective peaks.

As Fortune‘s Scott Cendrowski noted in an earlier story, this past weekend marked the first time that China’s central bank had cut two key rates on the same day since the financial crisis. China’s leaders pushed for a stock market rally last year at a time of slow economic growth for the country, but rapid gains spooked many investors, particularly margin lenders who have led the current sell-off.

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Clashes Reveal Anti-Beijing Anger as City Nears Anniversary of Reunification

Localist protester scuffles with a pro-China demonstrator during an anti-China protest at Mongkok shopping district in Hong Kong, China
Tyrone Siu—Reuters A localist protester, left, scuffles with a pro-China demonstrator during an anti-China protest at Mongkok shopping district in Hong Kong on June 28, 2015

Scuffles took place in streets that were the scene of much of last fall's Umbrella Revolution

Street scuffles between pro-and anti-Beijing factions broke out in Hong Kong Sunday night local time — and one of the city’s most prominent pro-democracy figures was set upon in the street in an apparently unrelated attack. The violence underscores raw tensions in China’s most open metropolis, just three days ahead of the 18th anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty.

Trouble began when so-called “localist” groups — many members of which argue for Hong Kong’s independence from China — staged a rally in the densely crowded Mong Kok district of central Kowloon to protest the presence of mainland Chinese street musicians. The performance of Mandarin-language songs in a Cantonese-speaking, working-class area like Mong Kok is regarded by many localists as culturally and politically provocative.

Violent clashes broke out when pro-China groups showed up to counter the localists, with rival groups chasing each other through streets crowded with shoppers and tourists, forcing retail outlets to pull down their shutters. Police say five protesters, four men and one woman, were arrested. No injury figures have been released, but police used pepper spray to subdue protesters and local media published photos of at least one bloodied pro-China protester being led from the scene.

Simon Sin, one of the leaders of Hong Kong Localism Power, accuses police of not doing enough to protect localist demonstrators. “The police protected the people who were attacking us. They didn’t protect us. We got hurt yesterday,” Sin tells TIME.

The South China Morning Post reported that police were seen helping “apparent participants” in the street clashes to leave the area, angering localist groups and bearing uncomfortable echoes of last fall’s Umbrella Revolution, when student protesters occupying the Mong Kok streets accused police of not protecting them from thugs who tried to break up the demonstrations. Seven police officers who beat up a protester last November have also still not been brought to trial, despite the fact that the attack was filmed by a local TV news crew.

The disturbances come ahead of a large protest march scheduled for July 1. The annual march — staged to coincide with the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty — covers an array of causes from LGBT rights to better conditions for migrant workers, but always has a strong pro-democratic focus. Sunday’s street battles also come after the recent failure of the Hong Kong government’s electoral proposals, which were designed to lay out a framework for the election of the city’s next leader in 2017 but ended up underscoring the vast political gulf between democratic and pro-Chinese camps.

In what appeared to be a separate incident, democracy activist and student leader Joshua Wong— named one of TIME’s most influential teens in 2014 — was attacked after leaving a cinema in Kowloon with his girlfriend.

A man “grabbed my neck, and punched my left eye. My glasses flew off,” Wong, who was not involved in the localist protests, posted on his Facebook page, alongside a picture of his injuries.

He told TIME that the attack showed “that there are serious safety concerns in the future” for activists like himself and said that he needed “to care more about my personal security.”

“People feel dissatisfied with the central Chinese government with the failure to deliver universal suffrage. What we see is the escalating conflicts between localist groups and the Chinese presence in Hong Kong,” Maya Wang, a China researcher in the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, tells TIME. “I think that kind of animosity between localist groups and the pro-Beijing groups stems from deeper discontent [felt by] Hong Kong people [in] their relationship with the central Chinese government.”

TIME China

China Seizes Rotting 40-Year-Old Meat Destined for Dinner Tables

Officials astonished to see date stamps from the 1970s on the contraband haul

China has found itself embroiled in another food safety scandal after authorities discovered 100,000 tons of smuggled frozen meat—some of which was over 40 years old and had begun to thaw—apparently destined for sale and consumption.

“I nearly threw up when I opened the door,” an inspector said of the aging meat’s overwhelming stench.

Chinese authorities found the smuggled pork, beef and chicken wings in 14 different crackdowns across the country. The haul is reportedly worth in the region of 3 billion yuan ($480 million), reports Reuters.

Much of the meat is thought to have been bought very cheaply in foreign countries. It was then shipped through Hong Kong to Vietnam and finally smuggled into mainland China, according to the state-run China Daily newspaper.

An official at China’s anti-smuggling bureau told the paper that smuggled meat can travel for extended periods of time in unrefrigerated vans and is often repeatedly thawed and refrozen, making it a breeding ground for dangerous bacteria and viruses.

China’s ongoing food safety woes are well established. In 2008, six children died and 300,000 fell seriously ill after consuming milk power contaminated by the industrial chemical melamine. On Wednesday, the BBC reported that the Chinese government had asked three Shaanxi infant formula producers to recall their products due to excessive nitrate levels.

TIME Hong Kong

Beijing Warns Hong Kong That Rejected Electoral-Reform Plan Is Only Offer on Table

Pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo holds a yellow umbrella as she speaks outside Legislative Council in Hong Kong
Tyrone Siu—Reuters Pro-democracy legislator Claudia Mo holds a yellow umbrella, symbol of the Occupy Central movement, as she speaks to protesters after a Beijing-backed electoral package was rejected, under Chinese and Hong Kong flags outside Legislative Council in Hong Kong on June 18, 2015

But overruling Hong Kong's own legislature could spark a fresh wave of street protests

Jubilation among Hong Kong’s democratic forces didn’t last long. Less than five hours after local lawmakers rejected Beijing’s plan for how the territory’s next leader will be chosen, China’s official Xinhua News Agency possibly declared the Hong Kong parliamentarians’ veto immaterial. The one-sentence bulletin from Xinhua announced:

BEIJING, June 18 (Xinhua) — Chinese top legislature on Thursday said its decision on Hong Kong’s electoral reforms last August will remain in force in the future, despite Hong Kong Legislative Council’s veto of the universal suffrage motion.

Last year, the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s largely rubber-stamp body, approved a plan by which Hong Kong voters could directly elect their next chief executive in 2017. Currently, Hong Kong’s top leader is chosen by a 1,200-strong committee that is seen as sympathetic to Beijing’s interests. There was, however, a catch to the NPC’s proposal: that same 1,200-strong committee would be in charge of choosing which candidates could appear on the ballot. The NPC’s plan galvanized huge street protests in Hong Kong last year — an awakening of political consciousness that surprised even residents of the former British colony. After Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the territory was promised 50 years of considerable autonomy from Beijing, under a principle that was dubbed “one country, two systems.”

Hong Kong’s pan-democrat lawmakers opposed Beijing’s new electoral plan as a betrayal of this principle, arguing that a filtering by a pro-Beijing committee hardly constituted “universal suffrage.” Other lawmakers maintained that the proposal was far more democratic than the current system that led to the choosing of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying — and Hong Kong should jump at the opportunity for more self-determination. The Global Times, a Beijing-based daily with ties to the Chinese Communist Party, decried Thursday’s veto from Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, in an editorial headlined “Sad Moment for Hong Kong[’s] Democratic Process.”

But Xinhua’s brief announcement — which was likely readied even before the vote took place in Hong Kong, according to analysts of China’s state-run media — raised the possibility that the NPC’s judgment trumps whatever legislative exercises might have taken place in a city of 7 million in southern China. “[The central government] cannot ignore the decision of the Legislative Council,” says Lam Cheuk-ting, chief executive of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, responding to the Xinhua notice. “Any political reform has to be approved by the Legislative Council, and they should have listened to the voice of the Hong Kong people.”

Emily Lau, a veteran Hong Kong opposition lawmaker, cautions that the Xinhua cable may not necessarily mean that Beijing will force Hong Kong to adhere to a new method of choosing its future leader, rather that no more democratic plan will materialize in the future. “They’re saying … ‘This is the thing on offer, if you want, you can come and take it. If you don’t want, wait a few years, it will be the same thing on offer,’” says Lau. “They should trust the Hong Kong people to choose someone who can work with Beijing. And such a person exists. If Beijing would only give Hong Kong people a chance. But they are too scared.”

With reporting by Alissa Greenberg and Joanna Plucinska / Hong Kong

TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong Lawmakers Reject Electoral-Reform Proposal Backed by Beijing

Pro-democracy lawmaker and I.T. advocate Mok is surrounded by veto signs during his speech at the Legislative Council meeting in Hong Kong
Bobby Yip—Reuters Pro-democracy lawmaker Charles Mok is surrounded by veto signs during his speech at the Legislative Council meeting in Hong Kong on June 18, 2015

Pro-democracy protesters objected to the vetting of candidates

A controversial proposal to allow Hong Kong citizens to directly elect the city’s political leader but only from a list of up to three candidates already screened by Beijing was voted down Thursday after 10 hours of debate.

Only eight lawmakers voted in support of the proposal after pro-democracy activists and politicians deemed it a betrayal on an earlier promise to grant the Chinese Special Administrative Region “universal suffrage.” A minimum of 47 of the 70 lawmakers were needed to vote in favor of the proposal.

“I’m sad, I’m disappointed, I don’t know when democratization can be taken forward,” said Chief Secretary Carrie Lam, who favored the proposal.

Anticipating defeat, members of the pro-Beijing camp staged a surprise walkout, though due to an apparent miscommunication, it lacked the numbers to remove the necessary quorum of 30 lawmakers. In the end, 37 votes were counted.

On the mainland, state-backed media blamed the defeat on “radicals.”

Opposition to the proposal prompted hundreds of thousands to take to the streets late last year for a civil-disobedience movement that became known as the Umbrella Revolution. Large swaths of this freewheeling financial hub were paralyzed for almost three months.

As a result of the proposal’s defeat, the existing method of electing the chief executive from an electoral college of 1,200 mainly pro-Beijing representatives should now remain in place for the next ballot, slated for 2017.

The defeated proposal, which supporters characterized as a significant step toward long-promised democracy and opponents call a false approximation of free elections, spurred debate from both sides lasting from Wednesday into Thursday. Following council protocol, each representative was allowed 15 minutes to make a statement, with arguments seeming to boil down to optimism vs. skepticism. Proponents said the reforms would be a first step in a longer process of democratization, while the opposition said they would instead lead to political stagnation and increased mainland involvement in Hong Kong politics.

Legislators Fernando Cheung and Lam Cheuk-ting both said Tuesday that they would vote against the proposal. “This is not a genuine free choice,” Cheung told TIME. Lam agreed, calling the reforms a screening system for the opposition and saying they are “totally unacceptable” as well as “ridiculous and shameful.” Both lawmakers expressed concern that passing the reforms would provide the central government with plausible deniability in the promised movement toward democracy and prevent any further measures toward what they see as truly free elections.

But lawmaker Regina Ip told TIME on Wednesday she would urge her colleagues to vote in favor of the reform bill. “This is a giant step forward” for democracy, she said. “Universal suffrage is by definition a universal right to vote, and Beijing is giving us just that.”

Outside the legislative complex, in a large square divided carefully by a barrier, protesters from both sides gathered to show support for their respective causes. An organization called Citizens Against Pseudo-Universal Suffrage had organized successive evenings of discussion with intellectuals and activists in the run-up to the vote, while next door groups like the Hong Kong United Youth Association, many of whom sported matching hats and shirts, chanted slogans in support of the central government.

“The key is about law and order in Hong Kong. It has been degenerating for a few years because of a small minority in town holding a different opinion,” Gary Sum, who works in the banking sector, told TIME outside the legislative complex on Wednesday as around him people waved Chinese flags and sang traditional songs. “We should have more respect for China because we are part of the sovereign state.”

On the other side of the square, at the competing antireform rally, Edmund Choi expressed incredulity at the opinions across the barrier, saying that such reforms would not do real good for the city. “I don’t know why they come here, because if they love Hong Kong what they should do is agree with us,” he said.

Hong Kong police cited rumors that some protesters might storm the chamber during or after the vote as the cause of an increase in security at the complex, including 200 police in the chamber itself and more than 1,000 outside the complex, the South China Morning Post reported Wednesday. Tensions were running especially high after the arrest of 10 individuals in an alleged bomb plot on Monday, and Twitter users posted photos of police searching the bags of passengers in Admiralty, a nearby subway station, but no such actions ultimately took place.

In addition, Cheung and Lam said that general security had been increased the week before the vote, including a curtailed number of assistants allowed to travel with each representative. Lam, who found such security to be unnecessary, called it a “humiliation” for the assistants, some of whom have worked in the building for decades. “It’s unreasonable and disproportionate,” he said.

Although polls showed a nearly even split within Hong Kong on the matter, the reforms were ultimately voted down in a dramatic scene involving pro-reform representatives calling for a recess and then leaving without a vote.

Cheung saw the no vote as a larger statement about the limits of mainland power. “The next move is to look at how civil society can gather our momentum again,” he said. “It’s a historic vote that signifies Hong Kong being able to say no to Beijing: that even as strong, as controlling, as economically, politically, militarily dominating as China is, we as a city are able to stand up and say no.”

With reporting from Joanna Plucinska / Hong Kong

TIME Hong Kong

Five Denied Bail in Hong Kong Bomb Arrests

Police officers stand around a man, suspected of a bomb-making plot ahead of an electoral reform vote, as he is brought to an abandoned former Asia Television Limited (ATV) studio for investigation in Hong Kong
Tyrone Siu—REUTERS Police officers stand around a man, suspected of a bomb-making plot ahead of an electoral reform vote, as he is brought to an abandoned former Asia Television Limited (ATV) studio for investigation in Hong Kong, China June 16, 2015

If convicted, they face up to 20 years in prison

Five of the 10 people arrested in what Hong Kong authorities say is a separatist bomb plot were denied bail Wednesday.

If convicted, the suspects face up to 20 years in prison for manufacturing or conspiring to manufacture explosives. They were arrested on Sunday after police discovered what they described as chemicals for the making of bombs in an abandoned TV studio lot on the outskirts of Hong Kong.

The South China Morning Post named the suspects as Chan Yiu-shing, Cheng Wai-shing, Rizzy Pennelli, Wu Kai-fu and Man Ting-lock. Another suspect, Sarene Chan, was granted bail even though she faced the same charges, the Post said.

Hong Kong police have suggested that the suspects were a separatist cell intent on launching bomb attacks on targets in the city’s downtown areas. However, many in Hong Kong’s democratic movement believe the plot to be a fabrication and a smear campaign against those demanding greater political freedoms for the territory.

The group’s court appearance came on the same day that lawmakers debated political reforms that sparked protests this weekend and during last fall’s Umbrella Revolution. Under discussion is a bill would allow voters to directly elect Hong Kong’s leader, known as the chief executive, but only from a pool of candidates screened by Beijing and a 1,200-member election committee comprising mostly establishment figures. The bill is not expected to pass.

Court has been adjourned until the middle of July pending analysis of chemicals and other items seized at the site.

According to the Post, four more of those arrested were released on bail yesterday and have yet to be charged. They were told to report back to police in mid-July as investigations continue.

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TIME Hong Kong

Is There Really a Shadowy Separatist Group Planning to Set Off Bombs in Hong Kong?

Pro-democracy figures suspect the arrest of 10 people on suspicion of plotting attacks is a smear campaign

One of the student leaders at the heart of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement has dismissed as propaganda the arrest of 10 people on suspicion of plotting a bomb attack before the territory’s legislature prepares to vote on a crucial political-reform bill.

Joshua Wong, who played a leading role in last fall’s Umbrella Revolution, tells TIME that police claims to have uncovered a separatist cell intent on setting off explosives are one of the plans or the agenda by the pro-government side — it’s propaganda to attack the … democrats.

The arrests were made after police found what they described as powerful explosives at disused TV studio lots on the outskirts of the city, which they suggest were intended for detonation in the city’s Admiralty district. Admiralty is the seat of government, home to the legislature, the headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army and the office of the city’s highest-ranking official, known as the chief executive.

A police media spokesman refused to divulge the political affiliations of those arrested, but a local newspaper, the South China Morning Post, citing an anonymous police source, claimed that at least one of the detained individuals had affiliations to a separatist, so-called National Independent Party.

Another local newspaper claimed that the party had posted on a now deleted Facebook page its determination to stop the passage of the political reform bill at any cost.

Separatist — or, to use the Hong Kong term, localist — politics are beginning to take root in the city as Hong Kongers feel a growing cultural, linguistic and political gap with mainland China.

However, the fact that the organization was hitherto unknown has aroused suspicions. It doesn’t seem like a lot of these [separatist] organizations are very familiar with them, and some even feel that this organization seems to have a very suspicious background,” Professor Eliza Lee, head of the Politics and Public Administration Department at Hong Kong University, told TIME.

Jon Ho of separatist group Hong Kong Localism Power, told a local radio station Tuesday that the legitimacy of the National Independent Party” was questionable, the Post reported.

Some Hong Kongers on social media pointed out linguistic inconsistencies between the language of propaganda material police claim to have seized from the National Independent Party” and words that would have actually been used by bona fide separatist groups, while others pointedly asked why a separatist group would have the word National in its name.

Other separatist figures stressed their commitment to nonviolence. Ray Wong, leader of separatist group Hong Kong Indigenous, told the Post that the arrests were a smear campaign, while Danny Chan, head of the separatist Hong Kong Blue Righteous Revolt, said he did not support violence.

“It would be unfair to say that the localists have a stronger tendency to be violent, and in fact if you look at the [pro-democracy] movement as a whole it was rather peaceful,” Lee says.

Steve Vickers, the former head of the Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau and now a security analyst, says, “The timing of the arrests is obviously of special interest, especially in this politically charged time, before the forthcoming [legislative] vote.”

He also tells TIME via email that “in the absence of a chemical analysis of the seized [bombmaking] items it is difficult to be specific” on the nature of the threat they posed.

TIME Hong Kong

Nine Hong Kong ‘Activists’ Arrested After Police Discover Explosives

Authorities suspect those detained of planning an explosion ahead of this week's vote on political reform

Five men and four women have been arrested in Hong Kong after police discovered what they say is highly explosive material in an abandoned TV studio on the outskirts of the city.

Authorities claim that the group was planning some sort of attack ahead of this week’s crucial vote on political reform in the Hong Kong legislature, the South China Morning Post reports.

The paper described those arrested as “radical activists”—among them a student, a construction worker and a teaching assistant—and quoted an unnamed police source as saying they were part of a Hong Kong separatist organization that had already discussed online plans to detonate a bomb.

At a press conference Monday afternoon local time, police declined to cite the name of the organization for what were described as “operational” reasons. However, a Superintendent Ng confirmed that officers had found “several kilograms of solid substance and five liters of liquid substance we believe to be chemicals linked to [the making of] explosives.”

Police also found at another location three bottles of the “major raw material” for the making of the explosive triacetone triperoxide (TATP). TATP has been used in several terrorist attacks, notably the London bombings of 2005 in which 52 died and hundreds were injured.

Along with the alleged explosives, authorities claim to have found maps showing locations in the city’s Admiralty district, which is home to the legislature, the headquarters of the People’s Liberation Army and the office of the highest official in the Hong Kong government, known as the Chief Executive. Locations in the neighboring district of Wanchai—a diverse area where luxury hotels and offices can be found as well as the city’s red light strip—were also allegedly marked.

A police spokesman told the press conference that there were “possibilities” that the suspected radicals were planning to “do something” at those locations.

Political tension has remained high in Hong Kong since last fall’s pro-democracy Umbrella Revolution. The city is sharply divided between those who advocate political conciliation with China and those who want Hong Kong to be run under fully democratic lines with almost total autonomy from Beijing.

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