The U.S. State Department has warned Americans that they should reconsider any travel plans to Hong Kong in the wake of a draconian national security law imposed on the city by Beijing, citing a risk of arbitrary arrest on vaguely-defined offenses under the law.
"Since the imposition of national security legislation on July 1, [China] unilaterally and arbitrarily exercises police and security power in Hong Kong," the State Department said in updated travel advice on its official website.
It said the ruling Chinese Communist Party has a "broad range of activities" it defines as separatist, subversive, terrorist, and as collusion with foreign powers.
The National Security Law for Hong Kong also applies to words and actions by non-residents of Hong Kong anywhere in the world, it warned.
"[This] could subject U.S. citizens who have been publicly critical of [China] to a heightened risk of arrest, detention, expulsion, or prosecution," the advisory warned.
"[Chinese] security forces, including the new Office for Safeguarding National Security, now operate in Hong Kong," it said.
The advisory also warns U.S. citizens in Hong Kong to avoid demonstrations, as perceived participation can also be deemed an act of separatism, subversion, terrorism, or collusion with a foreign power under the new law.
"On July 1, 2020, as part of its color-coded system of warning flags, the Hong Kong police unveiled a new purple flag, which warns protesters that shouting slogans or carrying banners with an intent prohibited by the law could now bring criminal charges," it said.
The new advisory on Hong Kong brings it into line with current advice on travel to mainland China, which the State Department said "arbitrarily enforces local laws, including by carrying out arbitrary and wrongful detentions and through the use of exit bans on U.S. citizens and citizens of other countries without due process of law."
It said U.S. citizens traveling or residing in mainland China or Hong Kong could be detained without access to U.S. consular services or information about their alleged crime.
They could also be subjected to prolonged interrogations and extended detention without due process of law, the advisory warned.
"Security personnel may detain and/or deport U.S. citizens for sending private electronic messages critical of the [Chinese] government," it said.
The advisory came as news emerged that key figures in Hong Kong's democracy movement have fled overseas.
Fears for safety
Pro-democracy activist Sunny Cheung, 24, said he left Hong Kong in August after beginning to fear for his safety.
"As the situation between the US and China began to heat up, a pattern of hostage diplomacy [by China] started to emerge," Cheung said from the U.K., via his Facebook page. "I was being followed more frequently, and my partner and family were being constantly harassed."
"I felt the situation was escalating and so I took the advice of many and left Hong Kong unwillingly in August due to safety concerns," Cheung wrote.
Cheung was among two dozen Hong Kong pro-democracy activists prosecuted for participating in an "illegal assembly" on the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre on June 4, 2020, the first time the candlelight vigil was banned in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
Twenty-six activists face charges linked to the event, including 2014 student leader Joshua Wong, media tycoon Jimmy Lai, and Nathan Law, who has also left Hong Kong due to the national security law.
Lee Cheuk-yan, who organizes the annual vigil in Hong Kong and is among those facing charges, told journalists that the court had recorded Law's departure from the city as being on June 27, before the summons was issued.
Lee said there was no crime in attending the vigil.
"It's ridiculous," he said. "It seems that the powers-that-be in Hong Kong have decided that we are all supposed to know this. Well, we didn't."
"It is not a crime to mourn. Is it likely that tens of thousands of people would all stand there holding a candle in the full knowledge that they were breaking the law?"
The defendants -- barring Cheung and Law -- appeared in West Kowloon Court on Tuesday, charged with organizing, inciting others to join, or taking part in an illegal assembly at Victoria Park, where thousands of people defied a police ban on public gatherings to commemorate those who died in 1989.
The case has been adjourned until Oct. 15.
Reported by Lau Siu-fung for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
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