Hong Kong police have arrested senior members of the group that organised the city’s annual Tiananmen Square massacre vigil, after it was accused of foreign collusion.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China said police arrived at the offices or residents of several members early on Wednesday morning. The arrests come amid increasing crackdown on political, professional and civil society groups, which the government has accused of unpatriotic conduct or national security offences.
Chow Hang-tung, vice-chairwoman of the organisation, was arrested at her office in Hong Kong’s central business district, according to local media. Chow had earlier posted to Facebook saying people, presumed to be police, were ringing her doorbell and attempting to crack the door code: “Any words of farewell for me?” she said.
At least three others were also arrested, according to the South China Morning Post, including standing committee members Leung Kam-wai, Tang Ngok-kwan and Chan Dor-wai.
Chow, who is also a barrister, was due to appear at a bail hearing later on Wednesday to represent Gwyneth Ho, an opposition politician charged with conspiracy to commit subversion. Ho is among 47 politicians and campaigners who were arrested for holding unofficial primaries ahead of a general election which was later postponed.
On Tuesday the Hong Kong Alliance formally refused a police request to hand over information about its finances, membership and operations last week, saying police were abusing their power to invoke fear, by making “a fishing attempt to construct stories and conspiracies” against civil society groups.
In its letter demanding the information, police accused the alliance of being “an agent of foreign forces” and requested the information by 7 September. Failure to comply could bring six months’ jail time or a HK$100,000 (£9,300) fine, it said. After the refusal, Hong Kong’s security chief, Chris Tang, vowed follow-up action and said law enforcers would act quickly.
Without naming the Alliance, the police force’s national security department said one of several organisation had refused requests to provide information, and “police severely condemn such acts”.
The 32-year-old organisation formed amid student protests in China in 1989, which later saw Chinese authorities killing untold numbers of protesters in Beijing and other cities. In subsequent years the alliance held annual mass candlelight vigils on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4 June, often attended by hundreds of thousands of people. The previous two vigils have been banned by authorities citing pandemic restrictions, and there are widespread concerns that under the national security law it will not be legally held again.
The national security law punishes acts which authorities deem to be secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces with sentences of up to life in prison.
Samuel Chu, a US-based Hong Kong activist and founder of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, which he has since left, told the Guardian the national security law “has proven to be the perfect weapon against civil society, forcing self-censoring and the disbanding of both new and old groups.”
Chu’s father, activist Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, was a senior member of the alliance and served on its standing committee from its inception until last year, alongside the founding chair, Szeto Wah, who died in 2011. In the weeks after the 1989 massacre Rev. Chu, Wah and the alliance were among groups running ‘Operation Yellowbird’, which helped about 400 wanted activists and dissidents escape China through Hong Kong.
“The rapid and complete closing space for civil society is not abstract or merely academic. For me – and so many Hongkongers – Hong Kong’s civil society is personal and generational. It is how we mark the passage of time and history as Hongkongers,” said Chu.
The alliance had already scaled down in an attempt to protect itself from persecution. Lee Cheuk Yan and Albert Ho are among numerous high-profile activists serving prison terms over their roles in the 2019 pro-democracy protests.
Last week the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) disbanded, saying no members were willing to perform secretariat duties after its convener, Figo Chan Ho-wun, was jailed for 18 months over a 2019 rally. The CHRF is also under investigation by police.
On Tuesday the city’s leader Carrie Lam said a group couldn’t call itself civil society if it defied the law.
“It’s not for her to decide. Does the government own the power to decide the definition of a civil society organisation?” Chow said in response. “By labelling everyone as foreign agents, as not civil society, they can do anything and it’s wrong.”
She said if there was any risk to the group in refusing the demand, it was a political one, as any arrest or charge would be without justification.
“The stronger you resist of course, the more they’ll want to suppress you.”
This article was amended on 8 September 2021. An earlier version said Chu had died, which is not correct, and that alliance was formed after the Tiananmen Massacre. It formed in May 1989.