An official training institute for Chinese judges has deleted a report detailing the setting up of a temporary branch of the ruling Chinese Communist Party on a Hong Kong university campus, after it was reported by the city's media.
The move comes amid growing public opposition to the erosion of Hong Kong's status as a separate jurisdiction from mainland China and the maintenance of its traditional freedoms for 50 years, as promised in the treaty governing the city's 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
According to an Oct. 25 article on the official website of mainland China's National Judges College, its party chief Huang Wenjun attended a meeting of the party branch that was set up for Chinese judges studying at Hong Kong's City University.
However, only a cached copy of the article was available through Google on Wednesday, with the original link returning an error code for "empty" content.
Huang told the meeting that its chief job was to uphold President Xi Jinping's vision for a "new era" of socialism with Chinese characteristics, in particular, to ensure that none of the visiting master's students embraced the wrong kind of ideology during their stay in the city.
"We must strengthen political power and effectively enhance political acumen and political discernment," Huang told the meeting, which was attended by 39 Communist Party members and 11 non-party members.
"Dare to fight against wrong words and actions!" he said.
Neither City University nor lawmaker Priscilla Leung, who teaches in the university's law department, had replied to requests for comment by the time of writing.
However, a report on the City U website said the school has trained more than 800 Chinese judges since the inception of its master's program in conjunction with the National Judges College 10 years ago.
Hong Kong political commentator Liu Ruishao told RFA that party cells are being set up to serve existing Communist Party members.
"They may have left mainland China, but they haven't left the party or its organizations," Liu said. "The party cells are set up as temporary organizations to maintain their life within the party."
"They have had similar activities before, but they have never done it openly before. Perhaps they want Hong Kong people to get used to the party's organizational model," he said.
Liu said the announcement of Huang's visit to the party branch had a strong flavor of ideology.
"They are going to war against wrong words and deeds, which of course is a matter of concern. Perhaps this is a call for party members to expand their work into the academic sphere, or into society at large?"
"A party presence also implies a party disciplinary presence, as well as investigators responsible for party discipline," Liu said.
The Chinese Communist Party openly sets up overseas "temporary branches" to oversee the ideological correctness of party members studying overseas, and to draw in new recruits from among Chinese nationals on campus.
However, the deletion of the article comes as democratic politicians, rights activists, and overseas governments have pointed to the rapid erosion of the "one country, two systems" concept protecting Hong Kong's separate status.
A report last month from the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) said the city is losing the autonomy promised under a 1984 Sino-British agreement governing the handover.
Citing the banning of political parties and politicians campaigning for Hong Kong's autonomy and independence, the vetting of candidates and the narrowing of space for political debate, the city's autonomy faces "continued erosion," the report said.
Bruce Lui, senior journalism lecturer at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the presence of Communist Party branches on the city's campuses could affect academic freedom.
"These organizations are everywhere," Lui said. "But they are the enemies of academic freedom, because the Communist Party opposes the universal values of the West, including academic freedom."
He called on the authorities to investigate whether such branches were legal in Hong Kong.
"If you say that you want to ban other political groups as illegal organizations, you should actually investigate the Chinese Communist Party for being an illegal organization," Lui said. "However, I can't see this ever being enforced."
Hong Kong in September formally banned a pro-independence political party, in a move strongly criticized by rights groups and pro-democracy politicians for curbing freedom of speech in the city.
Using colonial-era legislation once used to target "triad" criminal gangs in the city, the government ruled that Andy Chan's separatist Hong Kong National Party posed an "imminent threat" to China’s territorial integrity and national security, because Chan had refused to rule out the use of force or civil disobedience.
Communist Party branches, or cells, have long been a feature of political life in mainland China, but are increasingly being used as a vehicle for the expansion of the party's United Front ideological campaign, which seeks to bring specific groups of people into the party's fold, as well as keeping tabs on what they are doing, saying, and even thinking.
According to an article last November in the Global Times newspaper, sister paper to Communist Party mouthpiece the People's Daily, party members at overseas branches are required to hand in "a report about their thoughts every three months, participate in a group party activity and hold a party meeting once every half-year."
Their aim is to strengthen overseas students' political convictions and help them "resist the corrosive influence of harmful ideologies," it said.
Similar reports have emerged of party branches being set up by Chinese students last year at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, as well as campuses in Ohio, New York, Connecticut, North Dakota, and West Virginia, according to a recent report from the U.S.-based journal Foreign Policy.
The practice also extends to groups of employees of the Chinese state working overseas, according to online statements on the websites of state-owned enterprises.
Reported by Tam Siu-yin for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.