In May, Hong Kong saw more high-profile activists arrested and lawyers probed by national security police. An online news outlet was ordered to remove content from its website. A woman was denied bail on national security grounds even though she does not face such a charge. And another political cartoonist announced his departure from Hong Kong, as the city approaches the second anniversary of the enactment of the national security law.
HKFP continues its monthly round-up of developments.
Arrests of high-profile pro-democracy activists
Ninety-year-old retired cardinal Joseph Zen was among five people arrested in relation to the now-defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which aided protesters during the 2019 anti-extradition protests and unrest.
Zen, together with barrister Margaret Ng, singer-activist Denise Ho, scholar Hui Po-keung and jailed former lawmaker Cyd Ho, were accused of conspiring to collude with foreign powers. They were the trustees of the humanitarian fund, which ceased operation on October 31 last year.
The security law criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
In 2021, the fund investigated by police for suspected national security violations and ordered to hand over information about its operations and financial transactions. Local media reported at the time that the documents included bank account details, donor information and details of fund recipients.
The relief fund was one of the main support groups for protesters, offering legal assistance, funds for psychological counselling and medical treatment and emergency relief.
Rights groups have denounced the arrests. Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Erwin van der Borght said the incident highlighted “how the vagueness of Hong Kong’s national security law can be weaponised to make politically motivated, or simply malicious, arrests.”
Human Rights Watch called the arrests “a shocking new low,” and “an ominous sign that its crackdown on Hong Kong is only going to escalate” under a new administration led by former security chief John Lee.
Lawyers who worked with the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund were also probed by national security police over alleged “misconduct” by some solicitors and barristers, although no further details were revealed.
Police said they made complaints to the Law Society of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Bar Association. The professional bodies later confirmed they had launched investigations into the allegations.
Law Society president Chan Chak-ming declined to confirm or refute media reports that the police accused some lawyers of receiving compensation from the fund despite taking protest-related cases on a pro bono basis. The Bar Association meanwhile said they were “not in position to respond or comment on the updates or details in the investigation before it is concluded.”
Security police demanded an online news outlet, which had ties with a defunct opposition group, to remove “sensitive” content from its website. The founder of Passion Times, Wong Yeung-tat said in a Facebook post that he received a notice from the National Security Department of the police asking for some “sensitive” content to be deleted.
Wong also founded Civic Passion, a political party with roots in the localist movement that was considered to be a more radical faction of the broader opposition camp. Wong quit the group and continued to run Passion Times independently, before the party disbanded last September, when its chairman Cheng Chung-tai was ousted from the legislature after being ruled not “patriotic” enough for public office.
Wong declined to elaborate what legislation was cited or say what the “sensitive” materials were when approached by HKFP. Local media later reported that the content was related to a competition that invited people to design a new “national flag” for Hong Kong.
Media reports cited sources as saying the Passion Times had organised a “Hong Kong national flag design competition” in May 2016 which attracted 63 designs. Some 2,000 people voted online and the winning design was later showcased during a “flag-raising ceremony” at a march on July 1 that year.
The competition was suspected to be a means of advocating independence, and keeping it on the website after the national security law was enacted in 2020 was “challenging the law,” according to the sources.
High bail threshold
The West Kowloon Magistracy adjourned the case of a martial arts coach who was accused of violating the colonial-era sedition law by inciting hatred against the government and violence on social media. Denis Wong, 59, was also accused of possessing offensive weapons.
Wong’s 62-year-old assistant, Iry Cheung, was accused of possessing offensive weapons. Magistrate Peter Law rejected Cheung’s bail application as he did not have sufficient grounds for believing that she would not continue to engage in acts endangering national security if it was granted.
Such reasoning has been common used by judges to deny bail applications by defendants involved in national security and sedition cases. However in this case, Cheung was not the one facing such charges.
Bail applications in national security cases are subject to particularly strict assessment. Judges consider not only the defendant’s risk of absconding or obstructing justice, but also whether there are sufficient grounds for believing they “will not continue to commit acts endangering national security.”
The same threshold now often applies to defendants facing sedition charges, after the Court of Final Appeal ruled last December that sedition also amounts to acts endangering national security.
No more June 4 masses
A major Hong Kong Catholic group said it will not hold masses to commemorate the victims of the Tiananmen crackdown this year, citing fears over the Beijing-imposed national security law.
“Because frontline staff and some of the members of the Justice and Peace Commission of The Hong Kong Catholic Diocese are concerned about whether holding this event will be in breach of the implemented national security law, therefore [we] won’t hold a June 4th commemoration mass,” the Hong Kong Catholic Social Communications Office told HKFP.
Several Catholic churches in the city traditionally held masses on the anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown to commemorate those who died when the People’s Liberation Army cracked down on protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989. It is estimated that hundreds, perhaps thousands, died.
This year could be the first without any public activities in Hong Kong to mark the anniversary. Football pitches, where the annual candlelight vigil takes place, have been fully booked on June 4 or temporarily closed for maintenance.
The government has banned the annual candlelight vigil, which was organised by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, for the past two years, citing public health reasons amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The Alliance disbanded last September, after three decades in Hong Kong.
Protest leaders and some citizens defied the ban and held up candles in 2020, resulting in the imprisonment of some activists. Last year, police cordoned off the park entirely to bar people from entering.
Pro-democracy political cartoonist known as “vawongsir” announced his departure from Hong Kong on social media with a painting. He cited fears over the national security law.
The artist was also a visual arts and liberal studies teacher at a local secondary school. His contract was not renewed after he received an anonymous complaint about his drawings, many of which expressed sympathy for the protesters and accused the police of misconduct during the unrest of 2019. Wong was subsequently deregistered by the Education Bureau in April last year, citing professional misconduct.
The cartoonist said he “did not know where he stood on the list of being politically liquidated,” but had fears of potential detention in the future.
As of May 25, 186 persons have been arrested for committing acts and engaging in activities that endanger national security, according to the Security Bureau. Among them, 35 were arrested under the sedition offence of the Crimes Ordinance. Authorities said five companies were also charged for offences endangering national security.