As Hong Kong’s civil society tears itself apart, a group tries to hang on
HONG KONG – The unions have folded. Political parties have closed. Independent media and civil rights groups have disappeared. The Hong Kong government, its authority fully backed by Beijing, is shutting down civil society in the city, once the most dynamic in Asia, one organization at a time.
But one group, the Hong Kong Journalists Association, refused to step down, even as Hong Kong’s security secretary repeatedly nominates him for public criticism.
“We will try to fight until the last moment,” said Ronson Chan, president of the association. âBut honestly, it’s a gamble. How cruel will the Beijing government treat us? We know the story of journalists in the People’s Republic of China.
Authorities have used a national security law, which was introduced last year after months of widespread anti-government protests, to silence dissent. Dozens of groups have been forced to disband.
Many face inquiries. Police arrested the leaders of some groups and used the security law to force them to disclose membership and funding information. Some groups have been the target of attacks on state-controlled officials and newspapers.
Neither part of government nor the private sector, civil society provides a bulwark against the excesses of both. It gives people a way to speak up when the powers that be against them, and helps respond to problems that governments do not solve.
The actions against unions and nonprofits also extend beyond Hong Kong. Due to the city’s relative freedom, it functions as the center of efforts to protect rights in China and the wider region. But this status is eroded under repression.
âThese groups were important not only for Hong Kong or even China, but for all of Asia,â said Maya Wang, senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. âNow, little by little, this fabric of civil society is being unraveled. “
Human Rights Watch, which is based in New York, left Hong Kong after being sanctioned by China in retaliation for US law supporting Hong Kong protesters in 2019.
The largest local group to fall was the Confederation of Trade Unions, an umbrella organization made up of over 70 affiliated unions. It voted on October 3 to dissolve it in the face of growing pressure from the government.
The confederation helped organize a dockers ‘strike in 2013 and a street cleaners’ strike in 2018. Its political activities, including protests and a general strike during the 2019 unrest that rocked the city, likely made it a target authorities.
âUnion activity is very unglamorous in Hong Kong,â Ms. Wang said, citing the city’s weak labor protections. “There is basically no reward, but they persisted anyway.”
Confederation Secretary General Lee Cheuk-yan is serving jail time for unlawful assembly during protests in 2019. He and Carol Ng, the group’s former chairperson, have also been charged with subversion in separate cases under of the security law. The group said it was forced to disband after its leaders were threatened.
“A few of our leaders have received rather intimidating and concrete warnings that they will face threats against themselves or even their families if the CTU continues to operate,” said CF Fan, a research officer for the group. He said the threats came from both the Hong Kong and Chinese security services, but declined to give details.
One of the confederation’s largest affiliates, the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union, has said it will disband this year. This organization was the largest teachers’ union in the city, with more than 100,000 members, but began to dissolve after state media called it a “malignant tumor” and the government declared that he would no longer recognize the group.
Militant groups have also been wiped out. The Civil Front for Human Rights, which had organized large marches, closed its doors in August after the Beijing office in Hong Kong accused it of opposing China and police opened an investigation into it. funding. The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of China’s Democratic Patriotic Movements, which held an annual vigil to mourn those killed in the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen protest movement, dissolved after authorities have begun to examine its funding and have accused most of its leaders of national security offenses, including subversion. Authorities have removed the group’s museum exhibits and blocked access to the group’s website in Hong Kong.
âThe past 32 years, with the Hong Kong Alliance keeping these memories alive, have signaled that Hong Kong is different from mainland China,â Richard Tsoi, the group’s only officer not detained, said of the vigils. “But things have changed dramatically.”
Many groups continue to operate, but some fear the repression will spread.
“We’re not interested in politics at all,” said Brian Wong, a member of the Liber Research Community, an independent research institute that focuses on land use. “But from what we can see on the continent, all of civil society can ultimately be seen as a threat.”
The Hong Kong Journalists Association’s relative distance from politics may also have isolated it so far. Mr. Chan, the union leader, says his leadership has been hardened by years of coverage of repression and street protests.
They have little illusions about the difficulties they will face but wish to continue because of the needs of their colleagues, including hundreds of recently unemployed Apple Daily journalists, he added. The aggressive pro-democracy newspaper was forced to shut down in June after its accounts were frozen and several editors and leaders were arrested.
âI told them that even though I am arrested, please do not separate,â he said. “And if the pressure is too much, then put it on the limbs.”
The Journalists’ Group, which has fewer than 500 members, was founded in 1968 to help media workers organize themselves and promote press freedom. This year it has increasingly focused on helping unemployed journalists, including providing expense vouchers to former Apple Daily employees.
Hong Kong Security Secretary Chris Tang launched a massive attack on the Journalists Association in September. In an interview with the state-controlled Ta Kung Pao newspaper, he criticized the union for authorizing student members and asked why its leadership was made up of journalists from “a few media organizations” – a reference to the media who are generally criticism of the government. He called on the group to disclose its members, a refrain some pro-Beijing media and politicians have continued for weeks.
The association responded that the only students allowed to join are journalism students and revealing the union membership list would most likely violate Hong Kong’s privacy laws. Mr Chan said the union had members from most mainstream and even state-controlled publications. Another union, the Hong Kong Federation of Journalists, represents pro-Beijing media.
âWe cannot underestimate how much we are in danger,â said Mr. Chan, editor-in-chief of Stand News, an online publication. “But I think we still have room.”
After Mr. Tang, who was the Hong Kong Police Commissioner, was appointed to the post of security secretary in June, Mr. Chan sent a congratulatory message. He knew Mr. Tang from having covered the police for years.
âThe most important thing is that everyone is safe,â Mr. Tang replied on WhatsApp.
“It’s up to you,” Mr. Chan wrote to him. “Will I be safe too?” “
He received no response.