Police said three men and one woman between the ages of 16 and 21 were arrested.
Although police declined to name the group or those arrested, the Studentlocalism political group said on Facebook that its members were among the detainees and named it former leader Tony Chung.
Police spokesman Lee Kwai-wah told a news conference late on Wednesday that the organization “published information about the establishment of a new party that defends Hong Kong̵7;s independence on social media.”
“We have to enforce the law, even if the crimes are committed online. Don’t think you can escape responsibility in cyberspace and commit crimes,” Lee added.
Police said the four had been investigated under sections 20 and 21 of the Security Act, which deal with segregation. According to the law, secessionary offenses of a “serious nature” can result in imprisonment with a maximum term of at least 10 years and life sentences of imprisonment, while less serious offenses are punishable by three to 10 years.
On Sunday, the group published a paper entitled “Chinese Nationalism, Building Hong Kong Nationalism,” which was related to the Facebook page and recruitment forms for the “Hong Kong Student and Ballistic Division of the United States.” The American side of the group claims to be “determined to advance the path of Hong Kong citizens to regain our right to self-determination and to move the path in Hong Kong to independence.”
Soon after the arrest, a CNN reporter had a source canceled an unrelated security interview, “given the latest developments in Hong Kong.”
In a statement, Sophie Richardson, China’s director of Human Rights Watch, said the arrests were “a gross abuse of this draconian law (which clarifies) that the aim is to silence dissent, not to protect national security.”
She added that she “raises worrying concerns about wider crackdown on political parties” as the September legislative process approaches.
However, the likelihood that these elections will proceed as planned was questioned this week, as the government may use emergency powers in the reports to postpone them to 2021 due to the recent rise in coronavirus cases in Hong Kong.
The election period ends on Friday, with opinion polls expected to open on 6 September.
The city has seen more than 100 new coronavirus infections every day in the past week, from zero cases in late June. Wednesday was marked as the first day of the strictest social distance measures Hong Kong has ever experienced: masks with a mandate in indoor and outdoor public spaces, a maximum of two people in a group at a public gathering, and no dining in a restaurant.
Ronny Tong, a member of Hong Kong’s executive board or de facto cabinet, told CNN that he did not know how long the delay could be, but that any decision to postpone the election would be due to public safety concerns.
“I hope people will understand that any delay is due to community security and not political reasons. People in Hong Kong still have the right to vote freely,” Tong said.
The city’s registration and election office said it was “closely monitoring” the outbreak of coronavirus in the city and its possible effects on the election, and “listening to the advice of government and health experts.”
Pre-democratic figures have condemned any proposal to postpone the election. Activist Joshua Wong said the pandemic was an excuse, adding that the government “feared that they would lose landslides in the upcoming elections.”
Opposition parties have sought to achieve a wave of dissatisfaction with the government to a historic victory in the semi-democratic legislature, where almost half of the seats are controlled by so-called functional constituencies, which represent business and social groups and are usually for governments.
Last year, candidates for democracy won the local council election. A similar result in the Legislative Council could allow them to force a constitutional crisis by blocking the budget and urging Lam to step down. Both the Chinese and Hong Kong governments have suggested that such a plan could be illegal under the new National Security Act.
CNN reports were contributed by Isaac Yee, Vanesse Chan, Philip Wang, Jadyn Sham and Sarah Faidell.