Police said 17 men and two men under the age of 21 and a woman were arrested Tuesday in connection with separatist comments on social media.
Studentlogalism, a one-time pro-independence group, identified the trio on Facebook as its former convener Tony Chung and former members William Chan and Yani Ho.
According to Friends of Hong Kong, a popular organization based in the United Kingdom, it said it was collaborating with Sung, who had planned to seek asylum in the US consulate in Hong Kong before his arrest.
The Hong Kong branch of the organization said it was disbanded shortly after the National Security Act was imposed on the city by Chinese authorities, banning secession, subjugation and alliances with foreign forces.
Police allege that Chung and still live in Hong Kong continue to advocate for the city’s independence from China, which carries a sentence of three to 10 years in prison or life imprisonment for crimes of a “serious nature.” The accused denied having any connection to the separatist positions in question.
A Hong Kong government spokesman told CNN on Wednesday that he would not comment on the media reports of the arrests, but that “there is no justification for the so-called ‘political asylum’ for people in Hong Kong.”
“It should be emphasized that people in Hong Kong are being prosecuted for acts contrary to the laws of Hong Kong, regardless of their political beliefs or background. Furthermore, trials are conducted in accordance with the principles of law by an independent judiciary,” he added.
However, sheltering activists within Hong Kong could be a major expansion and could cause a diplomatic firestorm for both Washington and Beijing, which could affect the future of the Hong Kong embassy.
CNN has approached the US Consulate in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office for comment.
The circumstances for Tank’s surrender are unclear, but it may have been triggered by fears that the United States may have moved to close the San Francisco consulate. U.S. officials may be ashamed to offer any asylum to dissidents in Hong Kong, the most important U.S. mission in Greater China after the Beijing embassy.
When the embassy was closed earlier this year, some Chinese state media outlets called for the closure of the Hong Kong embassy, accusing the United States of taking influential measures. While Beijing now appears to be shying away from any major expansion, given Hong Kong’s economic importance and the number of Americans living in the city, the loss of the Hong Kong mission would be a major blow to Washington both diplomatically and practically.