HONG KONG: Authorities in Hong Kong on Monday took an unprecedented step to quash separatist voices by banning a political party that advocates independence for the southern Chinese territory on national security grounds.

John Lee, the territory’s secretary for security, announced that the Hong Kong National Party would be prohibited from operation from Monday.

At a briefing, Lee said the political party led by 27-year-old Andy Chan posed a threat to national security because it wants Hong Kong to be an independent republic and has taken steps to push this agenda. Lee cited as examples alleged plans by the party to recruit members and infiltrate schools to promote its views.

Lee said the party also “spreads hatred and discrimination against mainlanders in Hong Kong,” referring to people from mainland China who live in the city. He accused the party of saying that it would employ all means to achieve its goals, including force — though the South China Morning Post newspaper said he acknowledged that the party hasn’t actually used violent means to promote its cause.

The ban cites a national security law that has not been invoked since 1997. It is likely to raise further questions about Beijing’s growing influence in the former British colony, which was promised semi-autonomy as part of its 1997 handover. Chinese President Xi Jinping and other officials have warned separatist activity would not be tolerated.

The perception that Beijing is reneging on its promise of semi-autonomy and eroding Hong Kong’s free elections and freedom of speech is helping fuel a rising generation of young activists calling for greater autonomy, if not outright independence.

Huge pro-democracy protests erupted in 2014 in response to the decision by China’s ruling Communist Party to retain the right to effectively pre-screen candidates for Hong Kong’s leadership.

In Beijing, the office in charge of Hong Kong affairs in China’s Cabinet, the State Council, expressed support for the ban, saying in remarks carried by the official Xinhua News Agency that the move was necessary to protect China’s national security.

A spokesman for the office said China fully supported punishing what Xinhua described as “any acts that jeopardise national security,” and that Beijing has “zero tolerance for any organisations preaching ‘Hong Kong independence’ or engaging in activities of splitting the country.”

Chan, the leader of the National Party, had no immediate comment on Monday. He had told The Associated Press in July that police approached him with documents detailing his speeches and activities since the party’s formation in 2016.

The party was founded in response to frustration about Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong. Despite a promise of autonomy, activists complain mainland influence over its democratic elections is increasing.

Chan and other pro-independence candidates were disqualified from 2016 elections to the Hong Kong legislature after they refused to sign a pledge saying Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China. The Hong Kong National Party has never held any seats on the council.

Maya Wang, a researcher with Human Rights Watch, said the ban sets a dangerous precedent. “The banning of the Hong Kong National Party is a milestone in the Beijing and Hong Kong governments’ assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms,” Wang said. Though Hong Kong police said the party has not yet used any violence, it justified the ban as a necessary pre-emptive move.

“This justification sets a dangerous precedent, where more non-violent pro-democracy political groups may be similarly banned,” Wang wrote in an email.

— AP