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Prominent Hong Kong civil rights group disbands, citing government pressure

CHRF, an over-arching organization of local pro-democracy groups, organized mass marches that drew as many as 2 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 civic society, as the organizer of the annual July 1 protests that mark the anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China.

“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 organizing mass demonstrations, allowing everyone in society to have a chance in speaking up on issues they care about,” CHRF said in a statement announcing its dissolution.

“Unfortunately, for the past year or so, the government repeatedly used the pandemic as a pretext to reject the front and other organizations’ applications to hold rallies.”

The group said with its leader, Figo Chan, in custody for his part in 2019’s protests, and no one willing to take over, the organization had “no choice but to disband.”

The Hong Kong Police Department acknowledged CHRF’s dissolution in a statement but said it would not absolve the group of any potential criminal liability. The statement alleged that CHRF, which was founded in 2002, broke the law because it failed to properly register with the relevant Hong Kong government departments. CHRF did not immediately respond to the police force’s accusations.

CNN has reached out to the Hong Kong Police Department and the government’s Information Services Department for further comment.

The mass marches organized by CHRF in 2019 began as peaceful demonstrations — but clashes with police soon tipped the protests into a six-month-long political crisis that often turned violent. The protests were condemned by the central government in Beijing, which watched from across the border with growing impatience.

When coronavirus restrictions put a hold on all protests, Beijing moved to promulgate a national security law in June 2020 that criminalized secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. All four crimes hold a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.

In the year since, national security police have arrested protesters and journalists, raided newsrooms, and censored textbooks and websites.

Authorities have repeatedly denied that they are cracking down on political opposition or stifling dissent.

“The National Security Law only targets an extremely small minority of criminals and acts which endanger national security, whereas human rights and freedoms enjoyed by the overwhelming majority of the citizens will not be affected at all,” said Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam in a speech on July 5.

But critics say the voluntary closure of the CHRF shows the law’s far-reaching impact across various sectors and aspects of society.

Unions and organizations dissolve

CHRF is just the latest in a string of organizations and groups that have chosen to disband or leave Hong Kong in recent months, citing diminishing civil liberties and a shrinking public sphere.

On Tuesday, the Professional Teachers’ Union (PTU), a group of teachers and educators with more than 100,000 members, announced that it was disbanding — a decision that came after increasing pressure from authorities.

Last weekend, several Chinese state-run news outlets published articles accusing the union of poisoning the minds of children, and posing a threat to national security. Just hours later, Hong Kong’s Education Bureau announced it was formally cutting ties with the union, which it called “no different than a political group,” according to public broadcaster RTHK.

In a letter to its members, the union said it was “deplorable” that the political environment had changed so drastically that civic groups face an untenable future, according to RTHK.

The government’s renouncing of the teachers’ union is “absurd” for several reasons, said Joseph Cheng, a prominent Hong Kong political commentator now based in New Zealand — one being that they are a relatively moderate group which had traditionally expressed support for government policies.

“The PTU certainly has no inclination in support of Hong Kong independence,” Cheng said. “They are teachers, they are moderates, cautious, they don’t want to have anything to do with violent actions.”

“It was only when the Chinese authorities came out to attack the PTU, then the (Hong Kong) government felt it had to take action,” he added.

John Burns, an emeritus professor at the Department of Politics and Public Administration at the University of Hong Kong, pointed to one other reason why the government might have cut ties with PTU: to limit their influence in local elections.

Subsector elections for the Election Committee — which selects the next chief executive to lead the city — will take place next month.

“This was an announcement to the community of Hong Kong that (the teachers’ union) were no longer legitimate,” Burns said. “This paves the way for pro-establishment unions to take over the positions that previously the PTU seemed to fill.”

Other organizations that have disbanded recently include a medical workers’ union, a lawyers’ group, and more.

Journalists’ groups, too, are coming under fire. Members of the media have already faced intensifying scrutiny and tighter limits, highlighted by the raiding of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, which was forced to shut down in June after its assets were frozen by national security police.

On Friday, the pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po published a blistering article against the Hong Kong Journalists Association, calling out several of its members by name, and accusing the group of inciting hostility toward the government — raising fears that the organization could be next to fold.

Ronson Chan, the head of HKJA, told CNN on Friday that the group had no plans for dissolution, and that they would continue to protect press freedom in Hong Kong.

The broader impact

The slew of disbandments also raises questions about whether the security law might be applied retroactively.

When the law was first introduced, Beijing and local authorities assured the public — as well as alarmed international observers and world leaders — that it would not be.

But recent events seem to suggest otherwise. In their criticism of the PTU, both Chinese state-run media and Education Bureau pointed to alleged actions in 2019 — before the law had even been drafted.

Hong Kong’s police commissioner was more explicit, saying on Friday that mass rallies organized by CHRF “are suspected of violating the national security law,” and that “the force will investigate thoroughly,” RTHK reported.

It showed that the government’s promises are “certainly not true, because all these accusations are based on past actions,” said Cheng.

“Obviously, from PTU to CHRF, and the Confederation of Trade Unions, they feel the pressure,” he added. “There is no more tolerance of civil society, there’s no more tolerance of criticisms of any kind — even moderate, reasonable criticisms.”

In the longer term, it could mean fewer and fewer voices in Hong Kong’s formerly rich and pluralistic public sphere — and an inching closer to the kind of system seen in mainland China.

“The Communist Party uses civil society on the mainland, but their civil society is mobilized … where you control information, and where you restrict the right to organize and to freedom of expression,” said Burns.

Hong Kong has for decades provided a safe space for various groups to flourish, he added — but now, “all of these actions against unions and associations of various kinds are an attack on civil society.”

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