Widening Hong Kong Crackdown Sweeps Away Unions, Activist Groups
(Bloomberg) -- Chung Kim-wah cheered Hong Kong’s return to China as a college student, before growing more critical of Beijing’s rule as an academic and pollster.
Now, his organization, the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, provides the type of independent surveys that are impossible on the mainland, and frequently points out the deep unpopularity of top leaders, such as Chief Executive Carrie Lam. And lately, friends have been warning Chung to keep a lower profile, as the city extends its crackdown on dissent from well-known activists to the non-profit groups that have long helped push the government to consider opposition views.
“They are doing something to scare us, to threaten us and to indicate to us that we have to be careful,” said Chung, who is deputy CEO of the polling firm. “We’re trying to inform the society and inform the government. But if even this kind of scientific, impartial opinion polling is not allowed in Hong Kong, I think that would be a tragedy for Hong Kong, for the whole world and for China also.”
The pressure on civic organizations -- ranging from teacher’s unions and legal societies to journalist associations and activists groups -- shows Beijing isn’t finished remaking Hong Kong following unprecedented protests in 2019. The effort raises new questions about access to opposing views and information critical of public policies in the Asian financial center.
A vibrant and outspoken civil society has long been a feature of the former British colony, with Beijing promising before its return to Chinese rule in 1997 to preserve the “current social and economic systems” for at least 50 years. Some groups, including trade unions and teacher associations, sent representatives to sit in the city’s Legislative Council and help select its chief executive.
Things began to change last year, when Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong that pledged, among other things, to “strengthen” management of non-government organizations and foreign news outlets. The law, which Chinese officials said was necessary to restore stability following the unrest, has been used to jail more than 130 political activists and opposition lawmakers, and has prompted numerous political groups to disband.
Those facing trial under the law include 47 opposition figures who participated in a primary election to choose candidates for a campaign last year that the government said was plot to subvert state power. PORI, which designed the software used to tabulate the ballots of more than the 600,000 voters, saw its offices raided and computers seized as part of a national security probe into that effort.
Chung was asked to report to police in January, but hasn’t been charged. He has called the allegation that the primary was subversive “ridiculous.”
In recent weeks, the crackdown has widened. Lam, who previously said the security law would only target a “small minority,” said her government would refuse to deal with any organization that dabbled in politics. Although she said she supported a “pluralistic society,” she warned groups about crossing “red lines” and added that disbanding doesn’t absolve them of criminal responsibility.
“These organizations and units can operate without endangering national security,” Lam told reporters Tuesday. “But if we are aware that any of these organizations have deviated from their mission -- say a professional organization doing something political instead of something related to their profession -- the only choice we have is to terminate our relationship with them.”
Lam’s comments suggested that Hong Kong might be heading toward a model more similar to the mainland, where the Communist Party tightly regulates non-profits to keep them out politics. In 2017, for instance, China enacted a law that forced foreign groups to find government sponsors, register with the police and submit annual financial reports if they want to keep operating.
The number of foreign NGOs in China has since dropped to 586 as of Aug. 16, compared with some 7,000 before the law took effect.
Chinese state media outlets have led the charge against civil society groups in Hong Kong, accusing them of foreign collusion, subverting state power or generally acting against China’s interests. Such reports have been followed by announcements of investigations by city law enforcement officials.
The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, a group with about 100,000 members, shut down 10 days after the official Xinhua News Agency denounced it as a “malignant tumor” and Police Commissioner Raymond Siu said he would investigate it. The Civil Human Rights Front, which organized pro-democracy marches of more than a million people in 2019, similarly disbanded after Siu told a pro-China newspaper the group might have violated the security law.
More than a dozen smaller outfits, including groups representing progressive lawyers and medical professionals, have also made the decision to close down. This week, the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which provided financial assistance to arrested protesters, also said it would shut.
Advocacy groups may soon be limited apolitical missions that focus on livelihood issues, said Maya Wang, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch. Chinese officials have urged Hong Kong politicians to tackle deep-seated problems like housing and inequality and might welcome the support.
“The reason I think many groups disbanded more recently is because the situation has deteriorated more rapidly than they’d previously hoped,” Wang said. “It’s similar in the mainland, where rights-based or advocacy organizations are closing doors while service-based organizations may feel safer to continue.”
A spokesperson for the government said all law enforcement actions against individuals or groups “have nothing to do with their political stance or background.”
Some are worried about who might be next. Pro-China media outlets have in recent weeks intensified attacks against the Hong Kong Journalists Association, accusing it of “slandering” the government and opposing “fake news” regulations.
The People’s Daily also slammed the Hong Kong Bar Association as “a rat on the street in Hong Kong, and it is certain to collapse in the future.” Lam said the government may cut ties with the Law Society of Hong Kong, a 114-year-old organization that represents solicitors and regulates their conduct, if it lets “politics take over their professional mission.”
Chung, the pollster, said no one has yet told the group not to conduct or publish polls. For the time being, he and PORI will keep conducting them -- including for pro-China politicians if they’re so interested, he said. But he doesn’t plan on keeping quiet.
“I still want my voice to be heard,” Chung said. “If everyone just says the situation is becoming worse, so I have to stop saying anything, I have to stop writing, I have to stop commenting, or have to stop being active in society, I think that would be too bad for the society I grew up and I love so much.”
©2021 Bloomberg L.P.