Colonial laws 'can be used against activists for HK independence'

HONG KONG • The Chinese government's top lawyer in Hong Kong has said that British colonial legislation could be used to prosecute those advocating that the territory secede from China, but he also said that mainland Chinese security agencies have no authority to detain suspects in Hong Kong.

Britain ruled Hong Kong as a colony for 156 years until 1997 and many colonial statutes remain on the books, including legislation defining severe criminal penalties for acts such as treason and sedition.

Mr Wang Zhenmin, the director-general of the law department at Beijing's powerful Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong, said on Tuesday that these laws remained in force and could be used against independence advocates.

"This is still the law in Hong Kong, and this law was made by the British government a long time ago and applied in 1946 and the 1950s, 1960s," Mr Wang said.

The colonial authorities used the legislation in 1946 against residents accused of having collaborated with the Japanese Occupation during World War II.

The authorities also used the laws against pro-Chinese protesters, including admirers of Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution, into the late 1960s.

Prodded by Beijing, the Hong Kong government tried to pass legislation in 2003 that would modernise these laws, many of which date to before World War II. But huge street protests prompted the Hong Kong government to back down.

Mr Wang's position, detailed during a talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong, indicated that the Chinese government remained wary of reopening the issue even as a few voices in Hong Kong start to advocate independence.

On Tuesday, Mr Wang also discussed a controversy in which five Hong Kong booksellers disappeared and later turned up in China. Mr Wang, a Tsinghua University law school dean and professor who moved from Beijing in December, said: "This is a very unfortunate case. No one wants to see that kind of case happen here in Hong Kong, and no one wants to see that it happens again in the future."

Using the initials for Hong Kong's status as a special administrative region in China, Mr Wang added: "Just one point I would like to emphasise... According to the Basic Law, we should be very clear, only Hong Kong SAR government agencies can enforce law within the legal jurisdiction of Hong Kong."

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 14, 2016, with the headline 'Colonial laws 'can be used against activists for HK independence''. Print Edition | Subscribe