Civil society groups forced to disband as activists and critics prosecuted in Hong Kong

Civil society groups forced to disband as activists and critics prosecuted in Hong Kong
Pro-democracy activists hold a banner with political prisoners on 1 October 2021 (Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images)

There has been an alarming regression of civic freedoms in Hong Kong. The draconian National Security Law has been weaponised to target dozens of pro-democracy activists and has created a chilling effect within civil society.

Since July 2021, civil society groups, protest movements and unions have been forced to disband for fear of being targeted under the national security law. Around 150 people have been arrested under the law, with the first two convictions in July and October 2021. The archaic sedition law has been deployed against activists and critics, while journalists continue to face judicial harassment as well the denial of visas. Activists have been sentenced for their involvement in 2020 protests.


Unions shut down

In August 2021, the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union (HKPTU) announced its disbandment. The HKPTU, with over 95,000 members, was the city’s largest teachers’ union, representing over 90 per cent of the profession. It comes after the Education Bureau announced its decision to scrap all links with the union on 31st July 2021 – hours after the group came under fire in Chinese state media.

The state-run People’s Daily and news wire Xinhua slammed the union as a “poisonous tumour” that must be “eradicated.” A Hong Kong government spokesperson then accused it of “dragging schools into politics”, making reference to their organisation of a teachers’ strike during the city’s 2014 Umbrella Movement and the publication of teaching materials promoting civil disobedience.

HKPTU President Fung Wai-wah said: “We have felt enormous pressure. We understand that many members have a deep connection with the union and feel sad about the disbanding of the HKPTU.”

According to Amnesty International, since the enactment of the national security law the Hong Kong government has been rapidly eliminating dissenting voices in schools. The Education Bureau prohibited completely any peaceful expressions of political views and activities that it deems to be politically motivated. It banned teachers from school for facilitating discussions related to freedom of expression.

In October 2021, Hong Kong's largest independent trade union disbanded. Founded in 1990, the 145,000 member Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) voted to disband, bringing an end to the organisation as authorities exert greater control on groups and unions in the business hub. HKCTU vice-president Leo Tang said members of the group had received threats to their personal safety, without elaborating.

Fears of falling foul of the law and facing terms of up to life in jail have seen at least 29 trade unions disband between January and October 2021.

Pro-democracy group disbands

On 15th August 2021, it was reported that Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the pro-democracy group that organised some of Hong Kong's biggest protests, was disbanding -- the latest in a string of civic organisations that have dissolved in the wake of the sweeping national security law.

CHRF, an over-arching organisation of local pro-democracy groups, organised mass marches that drew as many as two million participants during the 2019 pro-democracy, anti-government protests, according to some estimates. It has long played a critical role in Hong Kong's civil society, as the organiser of the annual 1st July protests that mark the anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China.

CHRF said in a statement announcing its dissolution: "We've aimed to advocate for the human rights and freedom of Hong Kong people. We have abided by the 'legal, peaceful, rational and non-violent' principles in organising mass demonstrations, allowing everyone in society to have a chance in speaking up on issues they care about…Unfortunately, for the past year or so, the government repeatedly used the pandemic as a pretext to reject the front and other organisations' applications to hold rallies."

Tiananmen vigil group disbands

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China decided to disband following increasing pressure on the group by the authorities.

The group had organised the yearly Tiananmen commemoration vigil in Hong Kong for the past 30 years to remember the events of 3rd and 4th June 1989, when hundreds – possibly thousands – of people were killed in Beijing when troops opened fire on students and workers who had been peacefully calling for political and economic reforms as well as an end to corruption.

The Hong Kong Alliance announced its decision to disband on 25th September 2021. A representative of the alliance read out a letter from their chairman Lee Cheuk-yan, who is in jail. “A regime cannot take away the people’s memory and conscience,” the letter read. “The beliefs of the Hong Kong Alliance will be passed on in the hearts of Hongkongers.” 

Previously, in July 2021, the Hong Kong Alliance laid off its staff and downsized its operations in anticipation of the government’s crackdown on the group. On 25th August, police demanded the group’s membership list and financial information in an investigation into its alleged “collusion with foreign powers.”

On 9th September 2021, the Hong Kong justice secretary charged the Hong Kong Alliance chair Lee Cheuk-yan and the vice-chairs Chow Hang-tung and Albert Ho, with “inciting subversion.” Police had arrested Chow on 8th September, while Lee and Ho have been jailed for their activism since April and May 2021, respectively. Chow, and four other leading members of the group, Tang Ngok-kwan, Simon Leung, Chan To-wai and Tsui Hon-kwong, were separately charged with “failing to comply with notice to provide information.” All five were denied bail.

The charges of “inciting subversion” and “failing to comply with notice to provide information” are crimes under Hong Kong’s draconian National Security Law (Articles 23 and 43).

On 10th September 2021, police froze HK$2.2 million (USD 282,850) worth of assets of the Alliance.

Amnesty International to close down

On 25th October 2021, global watchdog Amnesty International said it would close its two offices in Hong Kong by the end of the year. The local ‘section’ office was to cease operations on 31st October while the regional office – which is part of Amnesty’s global International Secretariat – is due to close by the end of 2021.

“This decision, made with a heavy heart, has been driven by Hong Kong’s national security law, which has made it effectively impossible for human rights organisations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government,” said Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, chair of Amnesty’s International Board.

She added: “Hong Kong has long been an ideal regional base for international civil society organisations, but the recent targeting of local human rights and trade union groups signals an intensification of the authorities’ campaign to rid the city of all dissenting voices. It is increasingly difficult for us to keep operating in such an unstable environment.”

New guidelines on charities

Hong Kong’s financial services chief warned on 13th September that groups that endanger national security would lose their status as charities and stop benefiting from tax exemptions. Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Christopher Hui Ching-yu said an amended “tax guide for charitable institutions and trusts of a public character” would apply with immediate effect, a move described by analysts as targeting opposition-leaning social welfare or community groups.

Under the current law, charities are exempted from paying tax, while taxpayers also enjoy deductions for making charitable donations.

The move came five days after Hui faced a barrage of questions from pro-establishment lawmakers in the Legislative Council about the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which has paid out more than HK$243 million (USD 31.2 million) to those facing criminal prosecution or financial hardship as a result of the 2019 protests.

The city’s police force revealed that its National Security Department was investigating the fund – which is said to be a trust – and the Alliance for True Democracy, which had provided its bank account to the fund’s trustees for holding donations.

Chan Wai-keung, a political scientist at Polytechnic University, said he believed the move targeted opposition-leaning social welfare groups. “If senior management of a welfare group are involved in national security offences, it is possible that the group will have to cease operations if it is no longer recognised as a non-profit agency.”

Student activists supporting prisoners arrested for ‘subversion’

Hong Kong police arrested three student activists from the pro-democracy group Student Politicism on 20th September 2021 for “subversion” under the territory’s national security law over the group’s welfare programme for prisoners, street booths and social media content. The subversion charge carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail.

The three activists, aged between 18 and 20, were the group’s convenor Wong Yat-chin, permanent secretary Wong Chi-sum and former spokesperson Chu Wai-ying. Li said the group had set up street booths to spread what he called ‘hateful speech against the government’, including urging people not to use a government app aimed at tracking the spread of the coronavirus. A fourth member, Wong Yuen-lam, was arrested on 22nd September and also charged under the same law.

Police raided the group’s warehouse and seized large quantities of sweets, surgical masks, biscuits, lotion and books – all items on a list of goods prisoners are allowed to receive from outside – as evidence.


First convictions under national security law

On 30th July 2021, a Hong Kong court sentenced Tong Ying-kit to nine years in jail for “inciting secession” and “acts of terrorism” under the national security law (NSL).

Tong Ying-kit had ridden a motorcycle towards a small group of police officers while displaying a flag bearing the common protest slogan: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times”. Prosecutors had said the slogan signified a desire to overthrow the government and deemed it to “connote separation from China.” The judges agreed, saying the slogan “was capable of carrying the meaning of separating [Hong Kong] from the PRC and was capable of inciting others to commit secession.”

Tong Ying-kit, who has been remanded in custody since 6th July 2020, is the first person convicted under the national security law. He was denied the right to trial by jury – used in Hong Kong’s common law system for 176 years – after the justice secretary said there was a potential risk to the jurors.

As previously documented, the National Security Law (NSL) that entered into force in June 2020 is dangerously vague and broad: virtually anything could be deemed a threat to “national security" under its provisions. The Chinese authorities forced the law through without any accountability or transparency. The NSL punishes four types of activities: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with “foreign forces”, all carrying a maximum sentence of life in prison.

On 26th October 2021, Hong Kong convicted a second person under its national security law for chanting pro-independence slogans. Ma Chun-man was convicted of inciting secession after he was found to have chanted slogans such as “Hong Kong independence, the only way out” on 20 occasions between August and November 2020. Ma had been arrested multiple times for chanting such slogans before being remanded in custody.

On 11th November, he was sentenced to five years and nine months in prison. The sentence relates to him chanting slogans, holding up placards and giving media interviews at a series of protests in 2020. In convicting him, the judge said it was not relevant whether or not his acts had been peaceful.

According to Human Rights Watch on 11th November, since the Beijing government imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong, 154 people have been arrested.

Sedition law used against activists and critics

While sedition offences have remained on the books, the new Hong Kong administration after 1997 refrained from pursuing such charges as the Basic Law, the mini-constitutional document of the city, assured the protection of basic human rights in compliance with international human rights conventions. Nevertheless, there has been a shift in the government’s use of the law after the enactment of the new national security law in June 2020.

A pro-democracy Hong Kong DJ went on trial on 29th July 2021 for sedition in the first use of the colonial-era law since the city's handover to China. Tam Tak-chi, 48, better known by his DJ moniker "Fast Beat", faces eight sedition charges for slogans he either uttered or wrote between January and July 2020. He also faces other charges including inciting an unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct.

At the opening of his trial, prosecutors read out those slogans, as well as some pro-democracy speeches Tam gave. The slogans included "Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times", "Corrupt cops, all of your family go to hell", "Disband Hong Kong police, delay no more" and "Down with the Communist Party of China".

On 23rd July 2021, Hong Kong police arrested five people on sedition charges for publishing children's books that allegedly incite hatred towards the city's government. The two men and three women arrested are members of a speech therapists' union which produces books for children. They face a maximum penalty of two years in prison

Police said one book, Defenders of the Sheep Village, was connected to the protests. In the story, wolves want to occupy the village and eat the sheep, who in turn use their horns to fight back. Another book tells the story of 12 sheep taken by wolves to a beasts' village where they would be cooked. Allegedly it could potentially be seen as alluding to the 12 Hong Kong people captured by China in August 2020 at sea as they tried to flee the city by boat. A third book tells the story of wolves sneaking through a hole into a sheep village and shows the wolves as dirty and the sheep as clean.

The five were arrested on suspicion of conspiring to publish seditious material under a colonial-era law which had been rarely used before the anti-government protests began in the former British colony.

They were finally charged at the end of August 2021 by Hong Kong police and taken to court. The unionists were charged with conspiracy to “print, publish, distribute, or display seditious publication,” for inciting hatred of the government and the judiciary among kids. In addition, US$20,600 of the union’s fund was frozen by police order, and copies of the children’s books, as well as the arrestees’ electronics, were taken for further investigation. They were all denied bail.

In August 2021, property manager Kim Chiang Chung-sang appeared at West Kowloon Magistrates’ Courts. He has been accused of displaying seditious posters which insulted and threatened the judges involved in the city’s first national security trial and was denied bail.

According to the charge sheet, the posters were displayed at a kindergarten in Sheung Shui’s Tin Ping Estate on 28th July and inside a toilet at the High Court a day later. The content was said to be intended to bring the administration of justice “into hatred or contempt.” They were intended to “raise discontent or disaffection amongst inhabitants of Hong Kong, to incite persons to violence and/or to counsel disobedience to law or any lawful order,” the charge sheet read.

Hong Kong authorities should immediately release Lam Man-chung and all other former employees of the shuttered pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, said the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Apple Daily journalists arrested

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that on 21st July 2021, police arrested pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily’s former executive editor-in-chief Lam Man-chung at his home in Sai Kung Town on suspicion of “colluding with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security,” a crime under Hong Kong’s national security law.

Separately, police rearrested the newspaper’s associate publisher, Chan Pui-man, and editorial writers Yeung Ching-kee and Fung Wai-kong after the Hong Kong Police Force’s national security department revoked their bail. Police had previously arrested them in June 2021; they are also under investigation for allegedly violating the national security law.

Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai is currently in prison and on trial for alleged violations of the national security law. He has been detained since December 2020. In May 2021, authorities announced they had frozen assets belonging to Lai under the national security law. It marked the first time a company has been targeted by the controversial legislation.

Authorities refuse visa renewal for Economist correspondent

Hong Kong authorities refused to renew the visa of The Economist’s China correspondent, Sue-Lin Wong, according to a 12th November 2021 statement by The Economist’s editor-in-chief, Zanny Minton Beddoes. The Hong Kong government did not cite any specific reason for declining to renew Wong’s visa. Wong, who is Australian, was not currently in Hong Kong and was refused permission to return to the city.

“Hong Kong’s refusal to renew a visa for The Economist’s correspondent Sue-Lin Wong shreds repeated claims by the Hong Kong government that it upholds press freedom,” said Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator, in Washington, D.C. “Hong Kong authorities should reverse this decision immediately and allow journalists—local and international—to work without interference.”

In July 2020, Hong Kong authorities refused to renewNew York Times reporter Chris Buckley’s work permit, and a month later, Hong Kong Free Press’s editor Aaron Mc Nicholas was also denied a work visa.

Peaceful Assembly

Activists sentenced for taking part in vigil

On 15th September 2021, nine pro-democracy activists were sentenced to between six and ten months in prison for taking part in a banned vigil in 2020 commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. They were accused of participating in or inciting others to participate in an unauthorised assembly

Officials banned the 4th June vigil for the victims of China's deadly crackdown on protesters, citing COVID-19 measures. Critics believe the decision was part of a push to silence the opposition. Despite the ban, thousands of people turned up to light candles and sing songs.

Albert Ho, a veteran vigil organiser and former vice chairman of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, and the organiser of the vigils, was handed a 10-month sentence for incitement and attending the event. Figo Chan and Andrew Wan were also sentenced to 10 months behind bars. Steven Kwok and Chiu Yan-loi were jailed for eight months each and Cyd Ho, Leung Kwok-hung, Chu Hoi-dick and Yeung Sum were each given six-month prison terms. Cheung Man-kwong, Mak Hoi-wah and Leung Kwok-wah each received suspended sentences due to their clear criminal records, health conditions and their public service.

Police halt National Day protest

On 1st October 2021, police in Hong Kong halted a four-person pro-democracy protest on China’s National Day amid an expanding crackdown on free speech and opposition politics.

Chanting and carrying a placard calling for the release of Hong Kongers arrested in the crackdown and chanting pro-democracy slogans, the four members of the opposition party League of Social Democrats had attempted to march to the harbour-side Convention Centre where the official celebration was being held.

Dozens of officers, part of a massive police presence deployed to prevent any disruptions on the day, surrounded them and kept them out of sight and earshot of officials attending a flag-raising ceremony.

On 28th October 2021, police raided the office of the League of Social Democrats party due to their links with the pro-democracy Civil Human Rights Front, a group that has disbanded.

Activists jailed for protest against security law in 2020

On 16th October 2021, seven Hong Kong democracy campaigners, including former lawmakers, were sentenced to up to 12 months in jail for their role in a protest in 2020 against the sweeping national security law imposed by China. The seven had pleaded guilty to charges that included organising an 'unauthorised assembly' on 1st July 2020, when thousands of protesters took to the streets.

The activists included Figo Chan, a former leader of the now-disbanded Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF); Tsang Kin-shing and Tang Sai-lai of the League of Social Democrats; former district councillor Andy Chui; and former legislators Wu Chi-wai, Eddie Chu and Leung Kwok-hung.

Chan was jailed for twelve months, while the others were given sentences of between six to ten months.