Hong Kong police on Tuesday rearrested pro-independence activist Tony Chung, who faces criminal charges for his views under China's draconian national security law, outside the U.S. Consulate as he tried to seek political asylum, fellow activists said.
"Former Studentlocalism convener Tony Chung Hon-lam has been missing since 8.00 a.m.," a statement on the Facebook page of Chung's now-disbanded Studentlocalism group said.
The group later updated the post to say Chung, 19, had been among three people who were arrested, and that he had hired a lawyer.
Chung had been due to report to police on Tuesday as part of his bail conditions linked to his arrest under the National Security Law for Hong Kong, which criminalizes as "secession" any form of support for independence for the city.
According to the South China Morning Post, Chung's arrest came after he was denied permission to enter the U.S. Consulate.
A few hours later, when news of Chung's arrest had become public, four other activists also tried to get inside the U.S. Consulate, the paper reported.
"The Post understands that the four, after they were seen running up Garden Road and talking to security guards at the entrance before they were allowed into the compound, were later rejected," it said, adding that it was unable to confirm the report with U.S. officials.
A U.S. Consulate spokesperson declined to comment when contacted by RFA on Tuesday.
"We do not have anything to provide at this time," the spokesperson said.
Others also arrested
Fellow former Studentlocalism members William Chan and Yanni Ho were also arrested on Tuesday as they reported to police as part of their bail conditions, the Hong Kong Free Press website reported.
The Apple Daily newspaper quoted U.K.-based support group Friends of Hong Kong as saying that Chung was taken away by at least four police officers from the Pacific Coffee outlet in St. John’s Building close to the U.S. Consulate at around 8:15 a.m.
"The group was planning a rescue operation for Chung, who feared that he would be denied bail and wanted protection from the consulate," the report said. "He has been followed multiple times since he was bailed out."
The group said they aren't sure of Chung's current whereabouts, but unconfirmed reports said he is being held in Central police station, the paper said.
Hong Kong current affairs commentator Sang Pu said the activists were now effectively "defectors" seeking asylum on foreign soil.
"The situation in Hong Kong is deteriorating rapidly, and it shows that many people in Hong Kong want to escape," Sang told RFA, drawing a parallel with the daring escape of blind Chinese lawyer Chen Guangcheng from house arrest in the eastern province of Shandong.
After evading recapture, Chen eventually took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, before moving to the U.S. to live with his family following behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Sang said such tactics would require safe passage from the consulate to the airport, however, something that is by no means certain amid the current national security crackdown in Hong Kong.
U.K. asylum-seeker Lau Hung, a student at the Open University of Hong Kong, said many who took part in, and were arrested during, last year's protest movement, have had their passports confiscated pending trial.
"Now that we have seen the passage of the draconian national security law, which the Hong Kong government has used to politically persecute protesters, I think the international community needs to sanction more Hong Kong and Chinese government officials," Lau told RFA.
"I think governments also need to consider more types of sanctions, including trade sanctions, which would be more extensive and have a bigger impact," he said. "This would let the Hong Kong and Chinese governments know that suppressing freedom of speech and human rights comes at a price."
U.K.-based rights group Hong Kong Watch condemned the rearrest of Chung, Chan, and Ho in a statement on its website.
Thought crimes, harsh sentences
"The National Security Law is an appalling assault on Hong Kong's fundamental freedoms and the rule of law which introduces vague thought crimes and excessive sentencing into Hong Kong's legislation," the group said.
"[Tuesday's] arrests are the latest example of Beijing acting in violation of international law and their human rights commitments.
The group called for a special U.N. envoy for Hong Kong to monitor the human rights situation in the city.
"Governments should consider applying sanctions against those responsible for the rapid deterioration of human rights in the city," Hong Kong Watch said.
Chung was among four young people arrested by Hong Kong police on July 26 on suspicion of "secession" under the national security law, which took effect on July 1.
The arrestees aged from 16 to 21 were taken into custody in raids in the New Territories districts of Yuen Long, Shatin, and Tuen Mun on suspicion of "organizing and inciting secessionist activities."
Police said they were suspected of posting announcements online calling on people to fight to establish a "Hong Kong nation," of declaring that they would use all necessary means to achieve this end, and of calling for pro-independence groups to unite.
Studentlocalism disbanded ahead of the law's implementation, but as the posts were made after the new law took effect, they fell under articles in the law banning "incitement" to secessionist activities, police said at the time.
Footage of Chung's arrest shared online showed a plainclothes national security officer identifying himself, before leading Chung to a vehicle with his hands behind his back.
Under the terms of the 1997 handover agreement, Hong Kong was promised the maintenance of its traditional freedoms of speech and association, as well as universal suffrage.
But Beijing's ruling out of fully democratic elections in 2014, its insistence on the prosecution and disqualification of key opposition figures, and its subsequent imposition of the National Security Law following months of popular protests over diminishing freedoms have collapsed the distinction between the city and the rest of mainland China, rights groups and overseas governments say.
The vaguely worded new security law threatens anyone criticizing the Chinese or Hong Kong authorities anywhere in the world.
The law prompted many nations including Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany, Finland, France, and New Zealand to end their extradition arrangements with Hong Kong. They were followed last week by Ireland and the Netherlands.
Currently, the Czech Republic and Portugal are the only EU member states to maintain extradition agreements with Hong Kong.
The European Union said at the end of July that it would adopt a series of coordinated and consistent measures to deal with Hong Kong’s national security law, including possible sanctions on Hong Kong, although no new developments have been reported since from Brussels.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney announced an end to extradition to Hong Kong on Oct. 13, saying it was in line with action taken by other EU member states.
The Netherlands' ministry of foreign affairs followed suit on Oct. 15, calling for joint EU actions when dealing with China.
The U.S., which revoked Hong Kong's special trading privileges after the law took effect, has indicated it will do the same.
Law 'devastating' to rights protections
China's feared state security police have now set up a headquarters in the city to implement the law, while the government has warned that slogans linked to last year's protest movement, including "Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now!", will fall within the law's remit.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the law will be "devastating" to human rights protections in the city.
It has created specialized secret security agencies, denied fair trial rights, provided sweeping new powers to police, increased restraints on civil society and the media, and weakened judicial oversight, the group said in a recent report on its website.
The law will also affect the right to education and freedom of information, opinion, and expression in schools, as political statements and discussions are banned from the city's classrooms, and as books by pro-democracy figures are removed from its public libraries.
Reported by Lu Xi, Lau Siu-fung and Cai Ling for RFA's Mandarin and Cantonese Services. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.