Hongkongers living in the UK have organised a series of human chain protests and assemblies in 11 cities. It followed a national security police raid on Stand News and the arrest of seven people connected to the outlet, including current and former members of its senior staff. Expatriates spanning from Edinburgh to Bristol rallied throughout January in support of reporters and press freedom back home.

On Sunday, a human chain protest in Manchester ended in a scuffle between Hongkongers and individuals from mainland China. Beijing’s embassy in Britain issued a statement to “severely condemn” verbal threats and violence against its citizens.

A pro-Hong Kong democracy rally in Kingston in early January, 2022. Photo: Britons in HK.

Images posted by activist groups and Hong Kong citizen journalists in the UK showed crowds had formed human chains in various cities. The eight events that took place from early January until last Sunday were attended by around 3,200 people in total, one of the organisers, Freman Wu from the group Britons in HK, told HKFP.

At a demonstration in Leeds last Monday, dozens gathered outside Victoria Quarter. People, including children, were seen holding up signs which read “journalism is not a crime,” and “telling the truth is not a crime.” Some held up photos of people arrested, including pro-democracy singer Denise Ho – a former co-director of the defunct digital news outlet.

A demonstration in Leeds. Photo: Harbour of Freedom.

At a demonstration in Kingston on Saturday, 50-year-old Terry Ho – who moved to the UK on a BNO visa – told SW Londoner that press freedom was under fire: “They change all the media, they take away all the freedom of speech… There is no more freedom of speech in Hong Kong.”

The seven Stand News figures were arrested on suspicion of breaching the colonial-era Crimes Ordinance by conspiring to publish seditious publications. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said the move was unrelated to press freedom.

Three more events are slated for this weekend in Britain, including one in London.

Manchester demo

One of the events in Manchester last Sunday, however, ended in confrontation, as protesters and two Mandarin-speaking women clashed.

Photo: Free HK Media screenshot.

Clark Leung, a volunteer at the event who said that he had received political asylum in the UK, told HKFP that at least four disputes had broken out between participants and people from mainland China that afternoon, as some protesters felt uncomfortable being photographed up-close. They requested that their images be removed, he said, while rally volunteers tried to mediate.

“We were afraid that they would upload the photos onto Chinese [social media]. It was to ensure the safety of the participants,” he said. Between 500 and 600 people formed a human chain that stretched more 800 metres that day, he said.

A livestream posted by the page Free HK Media showed tensions rising between two Mandarin-speaking women and protesters after one of the women started filming protesters with her mobile phone. “Look, this is a person who wants to split our country,” she was heard as saying in the video. “Remember every one of their faces.”

Photo: Free HK Media screenshot.

Moments later, a man dressed in black and holding an umbrella charged at the woman and struck her arm, the video showed. A group of people immediately pulled the man away and huddled around her.

Police briefly took someone into custody, but released him after reviewing surveillance footage that confirmed he was not the assailant, Leung said.

Photo: Free HK Media screenshot.

The man seen striking the woman was a participant at the event, but not a volunteer for the organiser, making it “difficult” to control his actions, he added.

Conflicting accounts

A spokesperson for the Manchester police said in an email to HKFP that a 25-year-old man had been arrested for common assault and criminal damage following “a disturbance between a man and a woman” that day, but he was released without further action. “There were no injuries and enquiries are ongoing,” the department said.

However, a woman who claimed to be the one involved in the incident told Hong Kong-based state-backed outlet DotDotNews during an interview that she had left a statement with the police and her injuries had been attended to at hospital. She believed the group supported Hong Kong independence and did not want her shop, a beauty parlour, to appear in their videos, she said.

“This is not just an assembly. It escalated to personal attacks, insults and discrimination. I was filming to keep a record and some evidence,” she said, adding that some people at the scene said they would beat her to death.

She had tried to grab a bag worn by the man who struck her but a group of people had forcibly removed her fingers from it and assaulted her, she said.

The names, addresses and birth months of the beauty parlour’s directors were posted on forums and social media. The company was also flooded with malicious negative online reviews and fraudulent bookings afterwards, she said.

Photo: Hongkongers in Manchester.

In defence of the personal data posted online, Leung said it was taken from publicly available company records and therefore did not constitute an invasion of privacy.

The Chinese ambassador to the UK issued a statement on Wednesday related to the incident condemning cyberbullying, doxxing, and death threats made against the victim by “Hong Kong independence rioters.” Doxxing is a form of online harassment that involves revealing private data.

Photo: Hongkongers in Manchester.

“We express strong dismay and severely condemn such despicable criminal acts! This incident further revealed the ugly face of violent, law-breaking Hong Kong independence elements,” the statement read.

The rally’s organiser, Hongkongers in Manchester, said in a statement that it “[does] not condone” harassment but that the dispute was “provoked” by the women’s heckling. Meanwhile, Wu, one of the organisers of the January rallies, said they hope to stop similar conflicts from occurring at upcoming events by increasing the number of volunteers.

Correction 18.1.22: A previous version of this story stated the rally’s organiser as Manchester Stands With Hong Kong according to a supplied statement. The group has changed its name to Hongkongers in Manchester.

Support press freedom & help us surpass 1,000 monthly Patrons: 100% independent, governed by an ethics code & not-for-profit, Hong Kong Free Press is #PressingOn with impartial, award-winning, frontline coverage.

Selina Cheng

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.