HONG KONG (BLOOMBERG) – Bubble-tea shop owners jailed after publishing anti-vaccination messages online. An IT worker arrested over posting the political slogan “Liberate Hong Kong” on social media. A 67-year-old apprehended simply for applauding a court defendant.

Ever since Beijing imposed a national security law on the city in 2020, these acts have been considered crimes in the former British colony, which once protected free speech. Yet now, after a Hong Kong court last December expanded the scope of the statute, authorities are increasingly prosecuting them under a colonial sedition law that hadn’t been used for decades.

The court said that because Beijing’s security law was “incomplete”, special provisions such as a much higher bail threshold and handpicked judges could apply to other security-focused crimes not specifically mentioned in the 2020 statute – including sedition.

Since September 2020, some 60 people have been arrested under the 1938 Crimes Ordinance, which was intended at the time to silence pro-Beijing forces.

The ordinance defines sedition as speech or publications bringing hate or contempt to “Her Majesty, her heirs or successors” or the government. Sedition now accounts for about a quarter of all 215 arrests by the national security police division created by the China-imposed law.

“It’s painfully clear these laws are being applied to silence criticism and speech that the Hong Kong authorities – on behalf of the central government – has decided are politically unacceptable,” said Ms Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch.

Hong Kong’s crackdown on dissent has jailed scores of journalists, politicians and civil society figures – and pressured lawyers defending them – in the wake of 2019’s anti-government unrest. That campaign has undermined the city’s reputation as a liberal finance hub and prompted concerns that its rule of law is deteriorating.

Last month, the United Nations Human Rights Committee called on Hong Kong to repeal its sedition measure, saying it was curtailing citizens’ “legitimate right to freedom of speech”.

Instead, officials look set to go harder. Chief Executive John Lee has vowed to pass Hong Kong’s own long-shelved security law, which would introduce a new sedition law and ban theft of state secrets – a vague crime that could create an uncertain environment for dealing with government-owned businesses.

In a statement last month, the Hong Kong government responded to the UN committee, saying: “The offence is not meant to silence expression of any opinion, only genuine criticisms against the government based on objective facts.”

The Justice Department added in an emailed statement that “the sedition offence is consistent with the relevant provisions of the Basic Law and the Hong Kong Bill of Rights on the protection of human rights”.

Hong Kong radio host Tam Tak-Chi became the first person jailed for sedition since the city returned to Chinese rule when he was handed a 40-month sentence in April, which he is appealing. His arrest came just two months after Beijing imposed its security law in June 2020.

Before that, sedition had for decades been overridden by the city’s legal guarantees of free speech, said Mr Michael Davis, a former law professor at the University of Hong Kong. “Prosecutors never brought such cases despite all the criticism of the government,” he added.