Police said two men and one woman — aged between 17 and 21 — were arrested Tuesday in relation to allegedly secessionist comments on social media.
Studentlocalism, a onetime pro-independence group, identified the three on Facebook as its former convenor Tony Chung, and former members William Chan and Yanni Ho.
According to a little known United Kingdom-based activist organization, Friends of Hong Kong, which said it had been working with Chung, he had been planning to claim asylum at the US consulate to Hong Kong prior to his arrest.
The Hong Kong branch of the organization said it had disbanded soon after the national security law was imposed on the city by Chinese authorities, banning secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces.
Police accused Chung and others still based in Hong Kong of continuing to advocate for the city’s independence from China, a crime that carries with it a sentence of three to 10 years, or up to life imprisonment for offenses of a “grave nature.” The accused denied having any connection to the allegedly secessionist posts in question.
A Hong Kong government spokesman told CNN on Wednesday that it would not comment on media reports of the arrests but said there would be “no justification for any so-called ‘political asylum’ for people in Hong Kong.”
“It should be stressed that people in Hong Kong are prosecuted for acts in contravention with the laws of Hong Kong, regardless of their political beliefs or backgrounds. Moreover, trials are conducted by an independent judiciary in accordance with the principle of the rule of law,” he added.
Providing refuge to activists within Hong Kong itself would be a major escalation however, and could cause a diplomatic firestorm for both Washington and Beijing, potentially imperiling the future of the Hong Kong consulate itself.
CNN has reached out to the US Consulate General in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office for comment.
The circumstances around Tang’s surrender remain unclear, but it may have been prompted by fears the US could have moved to close the San Francisco consulate if she had continued to shelter inside. Similar concerns could make US officials shy away from granting any refuge to dissidents in Hong Kong, the most important US mission in greater China after the Beijing embassy.
During the consulate stand off earlier this year, some Chinese state media publications called for the Hong Kong consulate to be closed, accusing the US of running influence operations out of it. While Beijing appears to have shied away from any greater escalation for now, losing the Hong Kong mission would be a major blow for Washington, both diplomatically and practically, given the economic importance of Hong Kong and the number of Americans who live in the city.