Hong Kong arrests six in first use of new local national security law days ahead of Tiananmen anniversary

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Hong Kong police have made their first arrests under a newly passed local national security law over social media posts deemed “seditious” by authorities, just days ahead of the 35th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

The city’s national security police on Tuesday arrested six people on suspicion of committing acts with seditious intent, according to a police statement.

Security chief Chris Tang confirmed one of those arrested was Chow Hang-tung, a leading organizer of the huge Tiananmen vigils that used to be held in Hong Kong but are now effectively outlawed. Chow is already in custody on charges related to her democracy activism.

In their statement, police accused an unnamed woman in custody and five others of taking advantage of “an approaching sensitive date” to anonymously publish seditious posts on social media since April.

The goal, police alleged, was to “incite citizens’ hatred of the central authorities, the city government and the judiciary, and to incite netizens to organize or participate in illegal activities later on.”

The statement did not state the upcoming sensitive date. However next Tuesday marks the anniversary of Beijing’s June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, an event that has been scrubbed from the record by Chinese authorities and can no longer be safely commemorated in Hong Kong.

Chow, a lawyer and one of the city’s most prominent pro-democracy activists, was previously twice jailed for holding unauthorized vigils to commemorate Beijing’s bloody military crackdown. She is currently in custody on a national security charge.

Tang was asked by reporters if the authorities were referring to the June 4 commemoration in the statement announcing the latest arrests.

“The date itself is not important,” he replied. “The most important thing is that people who want to endanger national security use these topics to incite citizens’ hatred against the Central government, our government and our judiciary.”

Those arrested were five women and a man, aged between 37 and 65, police said, adding they could face up to 7 years in prison if convicted.

Police raided the homes of five of the suspects and seized items including electronic devices that officers suspect were used to publish the “seditious messages,” according to the statement.

“Those who intend to endanger national security should not have the delusion that they can avoid police investigation by going anonymous online,” the statement added.

The arrests marked the first time Hong Kong’s own national security law had been invoked since it was unanimously passed by the city’s opposition-free legislature in March.

Locally known as Article 23, the law was rushed through at the request of city leader John Lee and debated over just 11 days.

The legislation introduces 39 new national security crimes, adding to an already powerful national security law that was directly imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong in 2020 after huge and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests the year before.

That law has already transformed Hong Kong with authorities jailing dozens of political opponents, forcing civil society groups and outspoken media outlets to disband and transforming the once freewheeling city into one that prioritizes patriotism.

The local national security legislation covers a raft of new crimes including treason, espionage, external interference and unlawful handling of state secrets, with the most serious offenses punishable by up to life imprisonment.

Lee, Hong Kong’s leader, described it as a “historic moment for Hong Kong,” but critics and analysts warned it would align the financial hub’s national security laws more closely with those used on the Chinese mainland and deepen an ongoing crackdown on dissent.

For decades, Hong Kong had been the only place on Chinese soil where mass commemorations were held on every June 4 to commemorate the pro-democracy protesters killed by Chinese troops in 1989.

The vigils were held by the now-disbanded organization Hong Kong Alliance, of which Chow was a leading figure within.

But the candlelight vigils had been all but banned since 2020, as authorities sought to snuff out all public commemorations of the crackdown, which remains the biggest political taboo in mainland China.

In 2020 and 2021, Hong Kong authorities banned the event on Covid-19 restrictions grounds, but small crowds continued to show up and light candles.

Chow was sentenced to 15 months in prison in 2022 for her part in organizing an unauthorized vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre the year before. At the time, she was already serving a 12-month sentence for her role in organizing the 2020 Tiananmen vigil.

In a separate case, Chow was charged in 2021 with inciting subversion of state power over her role in Hong Kong Alliance.

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