HONG KONG — Four student union leaders at the University of Hong Kong were arrested on Wednesday on suspicion of “advocating terrorism” after they had held a moment of silence for a man who stabbed a police officer and then killed himself.
The arrests, by the new national security police in Hong Kong, represented the latest crackdown on opposing voices as the Chinese territory tries to snuff out any sign of the dissent that flared during the 2019 protest movement.
University students were among the most determined and vocal protesters during the pro-democracy demonstrations in the city in recent years. And Hong Kong officials have used a national security law imposed on the city by Beijing last year to target campuses, which they have branded as dangerous incubators of anti-government sentiment.
Wednesday’s arrests stemmed from a live-streamed meeting on July 7, when the student union held the moment of silence and passed a motion expressing “deep sadness” over the man’s death and appreciation for his “sacrifice.”
At the height of the anti-government protests, the police described university campuses as hotbeds of violence and “cancer cells” that were endangering the city. The ranks of student activists have diminished under pressure from university administrators and government officials. Many have said they are fighting for survival against the Chinese Communist Party’s tightening grip.
“To tell the truth, it feels like we’re just waiting to die,” Yanny Chan, a union leader at Lingnan University, said this year.
The Professional Teachers’ Union, which had more than 90,000 members, disbanded last week after the government ceased to recognize it in the wake of attacks by Chinese state media. The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized mass protest marches, dissolved on Sunday after the police repeatedly accused it of illegal operations.
The national security police said on Wednesday that they had arrested the student union’s president, Charles Kwok Wing-ho; the chairman, Kinson Cheung King-sang; and two other representatives, Anthony Yung Chung-hei and Chris Shing-hang Todorovski. None of the students or their lawyers could be reached for comment.
Hong Kong’s secretary for security, Chris Tang, said at a news briefing on Wednesday that they would be charged with “inciting” a terrorist attack. “If there is evidence,” he added, “we will arrest and we will prosecute.” Those convicted of terrorism under the national security law could face a minimum of five years in prison.
At an earlier news briefing outside Police Headquarters, Li Kwai-Wah, a senior superintendent in the National Security Department, said the student union’s language “rationalizes, beautifies and glorifies terrorism.” He suggested that there was a close relationship between terrorism and “hatred” of the government and the police force.
When asked by reporters why the students were not given a second chance after retracting their comments, Mr. Li said that the crimes were irrevocable. “Retractions can only be taken as apologies,” he said.
He added that “praise, defense and promotion” of the man’s attack on the police were all tantamount to “advocating terrorism,” and that the police would interview the 30 attendees at the July meeting who had voted in favor of the motion. (Two had abstained.)
In July, the University of Hong Kong cut ties with the student union. A month later, it barred all students who had attended the meeting from campus facilities, citing concerns that the “continued presence” of union members would pose “serious legal and reputational risks” to the institution, Hong Kong’s premier university.
Alumni signed an online petition calling on university leaders to revoke the punishment. A prominent law professor, Eric Cheung, resigned from the university leadership council over its decision.
“I am very sad,” Professor Cheung said in a radio interview at the time. “Why, as a university, are we not helping students to correct themselves after making a mistake?” He declined to comment on the arrests.
A university spokeswoman also declined to comment, saying, “It is not appropriate for us to comment as the case is under investigation.”