HONG KONG - China warned yesterday against "radical forces" in Hong Kong, after police arrested 10 people on suspicion of making explosives ahead of a vote on a controversial political reform package.
"Hong Kong society should not tolerate any illegal activities. Whether these are violent or non-violent, we should not allow any illegal activities to be justified," Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying said in a televised briefing ahead of the weekly Executive Council meeting.
But the bomb allegations have been met with scepticism by some commentators in the semi- autonomous Chinese city, who questioned the timing of the revelations before the vote expected by the end of the week.
Security has been stepped up across the city, including at government buildings and train stations, as it braces itself for a fresh showdown over plans for how its next leader is elected in 2017.
The authorities are taking no chances after mass pro-democracy protests crippled parts of the former British colony late last year and presented China's Communist Party leadership with one of its biggest political challenges in decades.
Ten people were arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to manufacture explosives, police said on Monday, adding that some belonged to a radical group. Six people were charged yesterday with conspiracy to cause an explosion.
Hong Kong's legislature is due to begin debate on the electoral reform package in the Legislative Council today. Pro-democracy protesters are staging evening rallies throughout the week.
"We hope it can pass smoothly," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in Beijing. "This is beneficial for Hong Kong's long-term development."
Beijing has proposed a direct vote for Hong Kong's next leader in 2017, but only from among pre-screened, pro-Beijing candidates. Democracy activists want a genuinely democratic vote.
The chief executive is now chosen by a 1,200-strong pro-Beijing committee. China has not made clear what its response will be should the package be vetoed.
"If the pan-democrats stubbornly insist on vetoing the proposal, democracy in Hong Kong will come to a standstill," said Mr Song Ru'an, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official in Hong Kong.
The head of China's Hong Kong Macau Affairs Office, Mr Wang Guangya, in an interview with two pro-Beijing newspapers, reiterated Beijing's desire to see the electoral package passed. He said that if the electoral framework were accepted in its current form, there would still be room for changes in future, though he gave no specifics.
With tensions running high before the debate, Hong Kong's Independent Commission Against Corruption has said it is investigating allegations by an unidentified legislator that he was offered a bribe to vote for the package.
Some of those arrested in the raids belonged to a little-known group called the National Independent Party, Hong Kong media reported yesterday. Its Facebook page, now deleted, said the group was set up in January.
A June 1 post purportedly from the group warned that, if the reform package was passed, "Hong Kong people should be mentally prepared there will be casualties".
The Global Times, a widely read tabloid published by the Chinese Communist Party's official People's Daily, said in an editorial that following the finding of the explosives, Hong Kong risked descending into chaos.
"The radical opposition camp has recently resorted to despicable means... and (is) engaged in extreme violent activities," said Mr Song. "We hope that the moderate pan-democrats will see through the true face of radical forces."
But political commentator Kam Sai Kit said: "People have never heard of the organisation and don't know its members. The whole thing could be a set-up intended as a smear campaign against the localist camp."
Monday's raids by scores of officers rattled some legislators and residents. Posts on social media questioned the timing of the arrests, details of which were leaked to Hong Kong media before an official announcement.
Others were quick to sound a cautious note. "I suggest we look very carefully and calmly at this case before we afford this incident too much priority or seek to amend the Hong Kong threat profile," said Mr Steve Vickers, chief executive of risk consultancy SVA and former head of the Royal Hong Kong Police Criminal Intelligence Bureau.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE