Pro-democracy student leader Joshua Wong, center, speaks as Agnes Chow listens during a press conference to introduce their new pro-democracy political party called Demosistō in Hong Kong on April 10, 2016
Anthony Wallace—AFP/Getty Images
By Simon Lewis
April 13, 2016

Legal advisers to the Chinese government are warning that a growing body of activists arguing for Hong Kong’s independence could face prosecution under legislation brought in by the British colonial government — with one adviser calling for pro-independence activists to be detained immediately.

Hong Kong has been a largely autonomous “special administrative region” of China since the end of British colonial rule in 1997, but efforts to impose a national security law in 2003 were dropped after widespread opposition from a public fearful of Beijing’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s judiciary. That means colonial-era laws outlawing treason and sedition are still on the books.

The director general of the law department of China’s representative office in Hong Kong, Wang Zhenmin, said Tuesday, in a speech cited by the New York Times, that these laws could be used against those advocating independence.

“This is still the law in Hong Kong, and this law was made by the British government a long time ago,” said Wang, speaking at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club. He said the law was applied against wartime collaborators with the Japanese and also used against pro-Beijing agitators in the 1950s and 1960s.

Separately, a Hong Kong member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, Beijing’s top advisory body, told reporters that the members of Demosistō — a new political party set up by activist Joshua Wong — should be prosecuted merely for advocating a referendum on Hong Kong’s future in which independence would be one option offered to voters.

“The law stands. The law is clear,” said Alan Hoo, who is an expert on Hong Kong law. “You can argue in court, but you will be facing criminal process.”

He told local radio that the members of Demosistō and the Hong Kong National Party should be arrested immediately.

Neither Demosistō nor Wong are advocates for independence per se, and party chair Nathan Law told local media that “there might be some discrepancies” between his party and the pro-independence movement. But Wong has previously argued in TIME that self-determination is the only viable solution for Hong Kong. The party is also committed to the principle of self-determination.

Write to Simon Lewis at simon_daniel.lewis@timeasia.com.

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