HONG KONG (AFP) - Britain expressed concern on Wednesday (July 18) after police in Hong Kong sought to ban a political party which promotes independence for the city as Beijing ups pressure on challenges to its territorial sovereignty.
The bid to bar the Hong Kong National Party (HKNP), a well-known but small group with a core membership of around a dozen, has been made because it is a potential threat to national security and public safety, according to authorities.
It is the first time such a ban has been sought since Britain handed sovereignty of Hong Kong back to China in 1997 and is the latest move to stifle any calls for independence, which have infuriated Beijing.
"We note with concern the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government plans to prohibit the continued operation of the Hong Kong National Party," the British foreign office said in a statement.
"The UK does not support Hong Kong independence, but Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy, and its rights and freedoms, are central to its way of life, and it is important they are fully respected," the statement added.
The right to stand for election, freedom of speech and freedom of association are enshrined in the city's mini-Constitution, the Basic Law, as well as its Bill of rights, the statement said.
Semi-autonomous Hong Kong enjoys freedoms unseen on the mainland which are protected by the 50-year handover agreement signed by Britain and China.
But concern is growing that Beijing is trampling the deal and that rights are under serious threat from an assertive China under President Xi Jinping.
Hong Kong's secretary for security John Lee said on Tuesday he was considering the request made by police to ban the HKNP.
Questioned how the party was damaging national security, Mr Lee said he could not comment on the details.
However, he added that under Hong Kong law, national security meant safeguarding the "territorial integrity and the independence of the People's Republic of China".
Mr Lee said he would give the party 21 days to make representations.
International rights groups as well as pro-democracy lawmakers and activists have hit back at the move.
Amnesty International described it as a "chilling day for freedom of association and freedom expression in Hong Kong, with potentially far-reaching consequences".
Britain has voiced concern before over Hong Kong's freedoms, including after the disappearance of five city booksellers who resurfaced in custody in the mainland.