Hong Kong's national security police have arrested six people in connection with a raid on a stall at a Lunar New Year market they said had been selling "seditious publications" inciting people to overthrow the government.
Three people were arrested at the Ginza Plaza New Year pop-up fair selling pro-democracy memorabilia on Tuesday evening, while the rest were detained elsewhere in the city.
According to the China-backed Wen Wei Po newspaper, Alan Keung, who heads the independent news organization Free HK Media, was among those arrested.
A stallholder who gave only the surname Wong told Radio Free Asia on Wednesday that the police had rushed straight to the stall in question, and spent about two hours at the scene.
"I'm sure they came here with a purpose," she said. "They didn't look at every stall to see what they were selling, but rushed over [to that particular stall] as soon as they came in."
"They filed away the materials and asked very in-depth and detailed questions," she said. "The funniest thing is that I don't know why this was such a big event."
"They had four police cars blocking the whole street to arrest this group of people – is that a bit over the top? I can only say that I don't know what to say," Wong said.
Some people turned out to support the market in the wake of the raid, including a shopper surnamed Ho.
"After reading the news yesterday, I am planning to come back later to see what I can buy to support them," she said.
A stallholder who gave only the initial M said he didn't think he had broken the law, but could be arrested anyway.
"You need to be mentally prepared to run a stall here," Wong said. "But the entire government has information about everyone in Hong Kong, even if you don't run a market stall."
The Ming Pao newspaper said the stall had been selling a graphic novel depicting the 2019 protest movement. Content "glorifying" the movement has been banned in the city since Beijing imposed a draconian national security law from July 2020.
The police said in a statement late on Tuesday that the six arrestees, aged 18 to 62, were "members of an anti-government organization."
Police also seized 43 books in the raid, saying that the market organizers were suspected of publishing them, the online news site Dim Sum reported.
Some of the books on sale had content relating to Hong Kong independence, the incitement of others to overthrow the central government and the Hong Kong government, as well as incitement to violence and to disobey the law, Dim Sum quoted police as saying.
Police said they also found other products that “glorified violence or opposed the government” being sold at the same stall, it said.
The raided stall was run by Shame On You Grocery Store, while the fair was organized by Dare Media and the Be Water Alliance, and carried banners and other paraphernalia supporting jailed former pro-democracy lawmakers Andrew Wan, Woo Chi Wai and Lam Cheuk-ting.
Prior to the ongoing crackdown on public dissent under the national security law, Hong Kong once had a long-running tradition of political content and satirical T-shirts on sale at its Lunar New Year fairs.
After the protests ended, many local businesses displayed paraphernalia denoting support for the protests, and were quietly supported by local people as part of the "yellow economic circle" movement.
But such businesses have increasingly been targeted by police, with children's clothing chain Chickeeduck raided by national security police in May 2021.
Some of the stalls at the Ginza Plaza basement were run by "yellow circle" business owners. The organizers ran a "Hidden Market" last July that was raided by customs officers claiming that T-shirts bearing the image of Winnie the Pooh had violated trade descriptions law.
Winnie the Pooh is banned from China's internet as a satirical reference to Chinese Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, who is said to resemble the fictional bear.
Political commentator Chung Kim-wah said such raids are intended to have a chilling effect on Hong Kong.
"This kind of random law enforcement is actually harmful to Hong Kong, to the government and to the whole of society," Chung said. "The whole place has been in a state of fear and tension for a long time."
"There are no guidelines to follow ... Nobody could have known in advance that this book was listed as a seditious publication."
The raid came as Hong Kong leader John Lee said his administration will soon press ahead with more "national security" laws under Article 23 of the city's Basic Law.
Lee told the China-backed Commercial Daily newspaper that he had recently sent back a first draft of the legislation for revision after finding "loopholes" linked to "disguised organizations, new media and new technologies."
He said he hopes the legislation will be completed by the end of the year.
Translated by Luisetta Mudie.