Police said two men and a woman – aged between 17 and 21 – were arrested on Tuesday in connection with allegations of secession comments on social media.
Studentlocalism, a one-time independence group, identified the three on Facebook as its former convener Tony Chung and former members William Chan and Yani Ho.
According to a little-known UK-based activist organization, Friends of Hong Kong, who said she worked with Chung, he planned to seek asylum at the US consulate in Hong Kong before his arrest.
Police have accused Chung and others, still based in Hong Kong, of continuing to advocate for the city’s independence from China, a crime punishable by three to 10 years or life in prison for “serious” crimes. The accused denied having any connection with the secessionist posts in question.
A spokesman for the Hong Kong government told CNN on Wednesday that he would not comment on media reports of the arrests, but said “there is no justification for the so-called ‘political asylum’ for people in Hong Kong.”
“It must be emphasized that people in Hong Kong are prosecuted for acts contrary to Hong Kong law, regardless of their political beliefs or background. In addition, trials are conducted by an independent judiciary in accordance with the rule of law,” he said. added.
However, granting asylum to activists in Hong Kong itself would be a major escalation and could provoke a diplomatic storm for both Washington and Beijing, potentially hampering the future of the Hong Kong consulate itself.
CNN contacted the US Consulate General in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong and Macao Office for comment.
The circumstances surrounding Tang’s surrender remain unclear, but may be caused by fears that the United States could move to close the consulate in San Francisco if it had continued to be housed inside. Such concerns could lead US officials to give up asylum to dissidents in Hong Kong, the most important US mission in greater China since the embassy in Beijing.
During the consulate earlier this year, some Chinese state media outlets called for the Hong Kong consulate to be closed, accusing the United States of conducting influential operations outside it. While Beijing has so far abandoned a major escalation, the loss of the Hong Kong mission would be a serious blow to Washington, both diplomatically and practically, given Hong Kong’s economic importance and the number of Americans living in the city.
CNN’s Eric Chung contributed reports.