Hong Kong bomb plot was smear campaign, pro-democracy groups claim

Hong Kong localist groups have questioned whether yesterday's arrests of 10 people suspected of plotting bomb attacks may in fact be part of a smear campaign, which aims to undermine the pro-democracy movement in the region.

The Hong Kong police arrested 10 yesterday, seizing air rifles, a formula for making smoke grenades, face masks and maps of locations in central Hong Kong from an abandoned TV studio. While no official statement has been issued about the group, a police source told local newspaper the South China Morning Post, that at least one of those detained had affiliations to the so-called "National Independent Party".

The raid comes just days before a crucial vote on political reform that will determine how the city's next chief executive will be elected in 2017, an issue that has ignited huge protests in recent months.

But pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong have expressed concern that the dramatic raids may have been purposefully orchestrated as an attempt to smear their cause ahead of the vote.

Max Chung, a member of the Hong Kong Blue Righteous Revolt (HKBRR) which formed in 2013 with the aim of promoting self-determination in Hong Kong and which rejects the use of violence, has distanced the group from yesterday's arrests, and says he believes the whole incident could have been a set-up.

"For me it doesn't make any sense" he told Newsweek. "It appears that some tricks or propaganda are being used ‎to fool the moderate general public."

Having viewed some of the evidence which the police collected and showed to the press yesterday, Chung explains that most of the text and wording in the group's propaganda materials are not the kind of language used by most localist groups.

"It is convincing enough for me that this is a trap by an undercover operation, or a set-up by Beijing as propaganda to ruin the image of different localist groups. Hong Kong citizens mostly tend to handle things in a more cautious way," he says.

Chung says that according to Apple Daily, a Hong Kong online tabloid website, police had set up an operation post near the abandoned building where the explosives were seized and had even installed CCTV inside the building three weeks ago, claims which Newsweek cannot verify.

Jon Ho, a spokesman for Hong Kong Localism Power, told a Commercial Radio programme today that his group had no connection with the 10 people who were arrested. He also questioned whether they were part of a genuine localist group, arguing that some of the materials that the police had seized from them appeared "suspicious".

"Localist groups would not mention umbrellas and yellow ribbons," Ho said to a Commercial Radio programme, referring to items carrying logos of the key icons of last year's Occupy movement. Other localists have also told the media they had never heard of the group.

However, Sarah Cook, East Asia senior analyst for Freedom House, a US-based NGO that conducts global research into political freedom and human rights, believes that the 10 people who were arrested were indeed part of a radical fringe group and were planning something quite extreme.

"My inclination is to give the Hong Kong police the benefit of the doubt that there were really these explosives that were seized, and there were people who were planning something quite extreme," she told Newsweek yesterday. "It's difficult to assume this would not be the case."