Hong Kong seize explosives ahead of key political reform vote

The Hong Kong police have arrested nine people after seizing a cache of explosives. 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.

According to a police spokesman, at least one of the suspects belongs to a "radical group", and items seized in the raids include air rifles, a formula for making smoke grenades, face masks and maps of locations in central Hong Kong. Police said some of the substances were seized at an abandoned TV studio while suspects' houses were also raided.

According to the South China Morning Post, the police suspect that the explosives "were intended to be detonated before the Legislative Council debates the government's political reform package this week."

There have been reports in the media that those behind the explosives belong to local pro-democracy groups, something that has been fiercely denied by the groups.

Currently, Hong Kong's top political post is chosen by a "nominating committee" of 1,200 people, most of whom are pro-Beijing elites. When China regained control of the city it promised that the region would be able to elect its top leader in free and fair elections to be held in 2017.

However, though the election framework being voted on later this week would allow citizens to cast a vote directly for the territory's top leader, their choice would be limited to two or three candidates expected to be composed mainly of "pro-Beijing" members.

Last September, huge protests attracted tens of thousands demonstrators to Hong Kong's streets in response to this proposed election framework, in what became known as the Umbrella Movement. Some protesters remained on the streets for over two months.

Several thousand protesters protested once again this weekend, many carrying yellow umbrellas as they marched towards government headquarters, and more rallies are expected this week.

There have been some media reports that certain Hong Kong pro-democracy circles have discussed the idea that communist party backers who support current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, may be encouraging more radical activists to act irrationally, although this has yet to been proven.

Sarah Cook, East Asia senior analyst for Freedom House, a US-based NGO that conducts global research into political freedom and human rights, finds this scenario unlikely, arguing that the Hong Kong police are professionals. "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 tells Newsweek. "It's difficult to assume this would not be the case."

"It seems more likely that some sort of fringe radicals are behind this. Mainstream pro-democracy protests and leaders are very much committed to nonviolence - maybe acts of civil disobedience, but not something like this where you're really talking about a terrorist attack that would kill and maim large numbers of people."

However, Cook expressed concern that some politicians and media who are more pro-Beijing might use this story to smear the pro-democracy movement as a whole, and questions the timing of the raids.

It is widely reported that a bloc of legislators, known as the Pan-Democrats, who have vowed to block the vote in the Legislative Council, will have the numbers to vote down the legislative framework this week.

"I think that the democracy legislators will veto this vote and stop it, it would be a really dumb political move not to stop it," says Cook. "Then the ball will be in Beijing's court."