Hong Kong's biggest protest group disbanding

Hong Kong's biggest protest group disbanding

Civil Human Rights Front facing increasing pressure from authorities armed with Beijing's security law

Anti-government protesters rally in Hong Kong on New Year’s Day 2020 in a march organised by the Civil Human Rights Front, which is preparing to disband. (Photo: Nora Tam/South China Morning Post)
Anti-government protesters rally in Hong Kong on New Year’s Day 2020 in a march organised by the Civil Human Rights Front, which is preparing to disband. (Photo: Nora Tam/South China Morning Post)

HONG KONG: Hong Kong’s largest protest group, which drew upwards of two million of the city’s residents onto the streets in 2019, is preparing to disband, according to local media reports.

Members of the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), which organised many of the largest rallies during the territory’s 2019 pro-democracy protests, endorsed a resolution to disband late Friday, local media including the South China Morning Post reported.

The CHRF will make an announcement about its future on Sunday, RTHK reported, citing Chung Ching-fai, its interim convenor.

Hong Kong’s police chief has warned that the group may have violated the Beijing-imposed national security law, as authorities ramp up pressure on organisations that have opposed the government.

But the dissolution of the CHRF will not stop police swooping on it, a source familiar with the central government’s thinking told the South China Morning Post.

“Action against the front won’t stop regardless of its decision on Friday. Beijing is determined to get tough on organised pro-opposition groups which pose a potential risk to Hong Kong’s stability, such as the front,” the source told the newspaper.

“The situation has changed since the anti-government protests of 2019. Beijing spares no effort to crush pro-opposition groups even if they organise peaceful protests or support China’s resumption of Hong Kong’s sovereignty,” the source added, citing the fate of the Professional Teachers’ Union (PTU), the city’s largest educators’ group, which announced its closure on Tuesday amid political pressure.

Founded in 2002, the front is composed of human rights and pro-democracy groups. It first drew attention as the organiser of a July 1 march in 2003, when an estimated 500,000 people took to the streets and forced the government to shelve national security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law.

Citing the need to prevent any repeat of the 2019 chaos, Beijing imposed its own national security law on Hong Kong in June last year, banning acts of subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

In an interview published by the pro-Beijing newspaper Ta Kung Pao on Friday, police chief Raymond Siu Chak-yee said the front could have violated the security law as it hosted a series of unlawful assemblies in recent years. He warned that police had gathered evidence to take action against “unlawful groups” at any time.

At its height, the front had more than 40 member groups, including the Democratic, Labour and Civic parties. But most groups started quitting in March after reports emerged that police were investigating the front under the national security law.

As of Friday, membership had dwindled to just 10 bodies, including the Social Workers’ General Union, League of Social Democrats and the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, organiser of the city’s June 4 candlelight vigil marking the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Cheung Chi-wai, external vice-president of the social workers’ group, said he hoped the situation involving the front and PTU did not mean trade unions were no longer tolerated by the authorities.

“I cannot comment on the front’s plans and it is regrettable the PTU had to disband, but I think as a union, it should not cause big problems as we are concerned about labour rights, social workers’ relationships with their employers, and social welfare policies,” he said.

Police have been investigating the legality of the front’s operations since April. The force questioned the group over its finances and reasons for failing to register with the government under the Societies Ordinance.

It also demanded an explanation for the front’s role in a joint declaration to the United Nations last December calling for an international investigation into alleged police brutality during the 2019 social unrest, a move pro-establishment figures said might have violated the national security law.

At the time, the group refused to provide answers, arguing it was not obliged to and had never been asked about its status since it was formed.

The future of the front has been uncertain since its convenor, Figo Chan Ho-wun, was jailed for 18 months in May over an unauthorised 2019 protest.

Dickson Chau Ka-faat, who was named as vice-chairman of the League of Social Democrats last month, insisted his group would not be deterred by the dire situation faced by the front and the PTU.

“We will gather our allies and members to speak up on the government’s deficiencies in political and livelihood issues, especially when authorities want us to stay silent,” he said.

“Rather than worrying about disbandment, we should be concerned about residents living in subdivided flats, the poor and jobless, as well as our green belts in the countryside.”

Chau also said Hongkongers needed to be more aware of helping one another, when the government seemed to struggle with tackling social problems.

“Authorities seem to be more interested in cracking down on dissent than in solving livelihood issues. So there is a lot we can do as citizens,” he said.

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