The disbandment of civil society groups like the pro-democracy Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) is unrelated to the freedoms enshrined in Hong Kong law, Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said. Criticism of the authorities for once cooperating with the disbanded coalition was an attempt to “dig up old accounts,” she told reporters on Tuesday, and the government had learned a “valuable lesson” from the 2019 protests and unrest.

Carrie Lam.
Carrie Lam. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Addressing questions about Sunday’s disbandment of the CHRF following pressure from the authorities, Lam said that many of the city’s civil groups and individuals had “wilfully touched these red lines in the past.”

“Today with the national security law as a foundation, [law enforcement] may take action against these individuals and groups who touched these red lines and violated the national security law,” Lam said.

The coalition has not organised any rallies since the controversial law was enacted last June 30 and Lam told the UN last June that the law would “have no retrospective effect.”

protest march five demands 1 July 2020 causeway bay
File Photo: May James/HKFP.

The CHRF — which had organised large, police-approved peaceful demonstrations since 2003 — announced on Sunday that it was ceasing all operations. The news came days after police chief Raymond Siu said the group and its organisers were suspected of violating the national security law, and were facing imminent law enforcement action. The CHRF announced its own demise less than a week after Hong Kong’s largest teachers’ union said it would fold.

Lam also said on Tuesday that the police would continue to examine the front for any violations of the law.

‘Digging up old accounts’

“You are trying to dig up old accounts, saying that [we] interacted or contacted these groups who touched the red lines,” Lam said, responding to a reporter’s question on the government’s changing attitude towards the group.

The police used to work with the CHRF to organise protest logistics. In 2020, the government described Civil Front protesters as “lawful, peaceful and rational” and said it would “humbly listen” to their views.

civil front police march demo protest july 1
July 1, 2014. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

“The freedom of speech, publishing, assembly, protest and unionising are guaranteed by the Basic Law. Individual civil groups’ decisions to disband are completely unrelated to these freedoms,” Lam said on Tuesday. “Foreign politicians or foreign media claimed that these incidents happened because somebody suppressed their freedoms — these are very biased comments.”

Jimmy Sham Figo Chan CHRF the Civil Human Rights Front
CHRF Convener Jimmy Sham (centre-left) and Vice-Convener Figo Chan (centre-right) of the Civil Human Rights Front. File Photo:

Now, even freedoms guaranteed by the city’s mini constitution may have to give way to “more important goals” such as national security, public hygiene or public morals, Lam said. “Human rights and freedoms are not absolute.”

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.