The Chinese Communist Party is decimating Hong Kong civil society
As of January 4, 2022, sixty-four civil society organizations have closed due to state repression since the start of 2021
The year 2021 has witnessed the decimation of civil society in Hong Kong due to repression by the Chinese Communist Party. Such a phenomenon in today’s world is quite uncommon: a relatively well-developed liberal society forced back to the political stone age. That is indeed what is happening to Hong Kong before the eyes of the world.
As of January 4, sixty-four civil society organizations have disbanded. These groups were old and new, big and small, famous and obscure.
They were of many diverse types: 12 labor unions, 8 media organizations, 8 grassroots neighborhood groups, 7 professional groups, 5 student organizations, 4 political groups, 4 religious groups, 3 humanitarian assistance groups, 2 political parties, 2 protest groups, 2 Chinese solidarity groups, 2 human rights organizations, 1 group of elderly people, 1 parents group, 1 cultural group, 1 technology group and 1 yellow (pro-democracy) business. When they announced they were disbanding, all alluded in one way or another to the inclement political situation in Hong Kong as the reason for closing.
They include some of the oldest civil society organizations in Hong Kong such as the Student Union of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, founded in 1971, and Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, founded in 1973; Hong Kong’s biggest daily newspaper, Apple Daily; its biggest labor group, Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, with 61 member unions representing 160,000 workers; the main pro-democracy protest coalition, Civil Human Rights Front; the group that organized the June 4 candlelight vigil for thirty years, Hong Kong Alliance; and the largest group helping arrested, prosecuted and injured protesters, 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which raised an astounding HK$236,383,746 in crowdfunded donations from ordinary people.
Thirty-six of the 64 groups were quite recent in origin, having emerged out of the two biggest movements in Hong Kong in recent years, the Umbrella Movement of 2014 and the 2019 protests. Only 16 of the 64 were founded prior to 2014.
The purpose of the Communist Party’s crackdown is to crush any kind of association or assembly outside of its control, much as it has done in China.
The attacks on civil society organizations are part of a larger crackdown that encompasses virtually every sector of Hong Kong society, that indeed is aimed at forcibly pacifying the Hong Kong people themselves. Some of the more prominent elements of the crackdown include mass arrests of protesters and political leaders (as of January 4, 2021, at least 10,495 protesters have been arrested and 2,878 prosecuted; 174 political and protest leaders have been arrested and 106 of them prosecuted); attacks on the media and rule of law; a comprehensive “reform” of what was even before only a semi-democratic political system to exclude anyone of whom the Communist Party does not approve; enforcement of political obedience at schools and universities as well as the civil service through loyalty oaths, political education campaigns, and other forms of intimidation; a ban on all protests since March 28, 2020 on the public health pretext of coronavirus prevention; and the direct imposition by the Communist Party of the draconian, notorious “national security law” which designates new political crimes of “secession”, “subversion”, “collusion with foreign forces” and “terrorism” and as of December 31, 2021 has lead to 180 arrests and 111 prosecutions.
Previous to 2021, other civil society groups had also dissolved. For example, just before the inception of the so-called “national security law” on June 30, 2021, the political party Demosistō announced it was disbanding. Many other civil society organizations that have not formally disbanded have become moribund. In the oppressive political climate, it is difficult for many organizations to retain old members or recruit new ones.
Prior to the 2019 protests, only one political organization had ever been forcibly closed on Hong Kong: In 2018, the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party was banned by invocation of the Societies Ordinance. In December 2019, the police froze about HK$70 million in funds of Spark Alliance, an organization that provided assistance to those arrested in the protests, supposedly in connection to an investigation into money-laundering, although no further news of the investigation has appeared since 2019.
Since then, the regime has employed a variety of means. It forcibly closed only one organization, Hong Kong Alliance, by removing it from the Companies Registry, though the Alliance had already announced that it was closing. In the cases of Apple Daily and Stand News, the police froze the companies’ assets, making it impossible to continue to operate, this in spite of the fact that neither companies nor their employees were convicted of any crimes associated with the investigations nor had any evidence been presented in court linking the crimes of which they were accused with the funds that were frozen. Most organizations took the decision to close themselves, noting the difficulties of operating in the current political environment. Many feared that if they didn’t close, their employees or members would be arrested. In the wake of the arrests of seven people associated with Stand News on “sedition” charges, three other media companies closed saying it had become impossible to operate in a situation in which no one could judge what the bounds of the acceptable had become.
Thirty-five members of nine of the disbanded groups have been arrested by the National Security Department (the Hong Kong police unit charged with enforcing the so-called “national security law”) and/or prosecuted under the so-called “national security law”, including five members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists for publishing three allegorical books for children about sheep; seven members of Hong Kong Alliance — three for “inciting subversion” though they’ve done no more than say the same thing they have said for decades, and five for refusing to comply with police demands (one faces both charges); 11 executives of Apple Daily for “colluding with foreign forces”; four members of Student Politicism for running street stalls, aiding prisoners and opposing the government’s coronavirus tracking app, which actions are said to constitute “inciting subversion”; two members of the Chu Hoi-dick New Territories West team, one member of Hong Kong Civil Assembly Team, one member of Neo Democrats, and one leader of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions for participating in a pro-democracy primary; and three members of Power for Democracy for organizing that primary. In addition, four groups have themselves been charged under the NSL as entities, Hong Kong Alliance; Apple Daily entities, Apple Daily Limited, Apple Daily Printing Limited, and AD Internet Limited. (See here for a full list of arrests and prosecutions under the so-called “national security law” — scroll to the bottom of the page.)
On top of that, 23 members of six disbanded groups are facing non-NSL trials, including 11 from Hong Kong Alliance, six from Stand News, three from Student Politicism, one from Civil Human Rights Front, one from Apple Daily, and one from Hong Kong Civil Assembly Team.
Some other organizations have decided to leave Hong Kong, closing their offices in the city, including the Chinese-language news website Initium and Amnesty International. It specifically cited the NSL as the reason for its move. It is closing two offices, an Asia regional office under its International Secretariat based in London and the AI Hong Kong Section, which is properly a local organization and is therefore listed above. The New York Times announced weeks after the NSL came into effect that it was moving its digital news operations from Hong Kong to Seoul, South Korea, citing difficulties in procuring work visas for its journalists that were previously easy to come by.
See the full list of Hong Kong civil society organizations that have disbanded in 2021 below.
(For the most authoritative list in Chinese of civil society organizations closed in 2021 due to state repression, see this Stand News article. UPDATE: Stand News was forced to close due to state repression on December 29, 2021, on which date it took down its website and social media. Many of its old articles and videos can be accessed at the Wayback Machine. In late November, Hong Kong Free Press published a list in English.)