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Hong Kong police arrest 4, accusing them of supporting pro-democracy leaders overseas

London — For Hong Kong's government, there are the pro-democracy activists out of reach, living in exile, and there are those who have not fled the city and are still within its grasp. The Chinese territory's national security police cracked down on the latter Thursday, arresting four men accused of supporting what it deems as dissidents overseas. 

Authorities gave no names, but local media reported the four are former student members of the disbanded political group Demosisto, which became a household name as it helped catalyze the massive 2019 pro-democracy people power protests that rumbled through the city for most of that year. One of the men was reportedly readying to board a flight to Taiwan. All are allegedly linked to a web platform called "Punish Mee" which authorities claim is used to financially support eight pro-democracy leaders now living abroad. 

The four detained Thursday stand accused of violating some aspect of Hong Kong's so-called National Security Law – a direct response to the 2019 protests - which makes secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces punishable with a maximum sentence of life in prison. Critics and human rights groups say it is draconian and vague. In a statement, Hong Kong police said the men were detained on "suspicion of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and commit acts with seditious intent."

"Even though I do not know them, I feel very depressed and sad to see that," said Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Finn Lau. 

Living in self-imposed exile in the United Kingdom, he spoke with CBS News in London. 

"It's ridiculous to see they're being accused for funding us activists because I have never been in touch with them," said Lau. "I think the Communist party is fabricating evidence and it shows how far they are willing to go." 

On Tuesday, Hong Kong police had put out massive bounties - $1 million Hong Kong dollars, or about $128,000 U.S. dollars - for information leading to the arrest of those eight pro-democracy voices - including Finn Lau himself, Nathan Law, also in London, and former pro-democracy lawmakers Ted Hui and Dennis Kwok. Hong Kong's leader said they would all be "pursued for life," emphasizing the National Security Law's extraterritorial reach. 

Lau suggests two reasons for Hong Kong's bounties on their heads. 

One is "desperation or frustration of the CCP," referring to the Chinese Communist Party. "After all, there a number of extradition treaties that have been suspended so they could not extradite political dissidents back to Hong Kong. That's why they're using all sorts of means even beyond the judicial system."

"The second thing is they're trying to test the bottom line of both the U.S. and U.K. governments. (British) Foreign Secretary James Cleverly is going to visit China by the end of this month so they're trying to see what's the bottom line, how will he react before his visit. It's good timing for the CCP and Hong Kong governments to test the waters." 

Shortly after Hong Kong's bounties were announced, Cleverly released a statement saying "We will not tolerate any attempts by China to intimidate and silence individuals in the UK and overseas. The UK will always defend the universal right to freedom of expression and stand up for those who are targeted." 

The U.S. State Department similarly issued a statement condemning the bounty and calling on Hong Kong to withdraw it. "We will continue to oppose the PRC's transnational repression efforts, which undermine human rights. We support individuals' rights to freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly," said the statement, referring to the People's Republic of China. 

"Since 2020, I have been very cautious," said Lau. "With this explicit bounty I am even more cautious, I keep looking behind me to see if people follow me."

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