A planned Labour Day march in Hong Kong has been scrapped after one of its organisers was said to have gone missing for four hours on Wednesday morning.

Chairperson of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions Joe Wong Nai-yuen. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The group attempting to organise the march released a statement on Facebook on Wednesday morning, saying that Joe Wong – one of the organisers and the former chairperson of defunct pro-democracy coalition the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU)  – had disappeared from his home and had been unreachable since 7:30 a.m.

“His family and friends suspect that Wong might have been taken away by the police for investigation, or arrested. They have contacted lawyers to follow up,” the statement read.

Over four hours later, another organiser and former HKCTU member, Denny To, released a statement announcing that Wong had “regained his freedom” at 11:30 a.m. To claimed that Wong had not been arrested, but had experienced an “emotional meltdown” and was under tremendous pressure.

To said Wong had withdrawn the application for the march, which had yet to receive police approval, something that is required for public processions of more than 30 people.

Citing Article 63 of the national security law – which prohibits the disclosure of information involved in national security cases – To said he was not able to make any further details public. From past experience, To added that he could imagine what had happened.

“Wong has made his best effort to preserve the rights to assemble, I completely respect and support his decision,” To said in his statement.

The police confirmed on Wednesday that they had received the cancellation of the request for a Labour Day march. A police spokesperson warned that anyone who gathered unlawfully on Hong Kong Island on May 1 could be charged with participating in an illegal assembly, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

To added that they had expected this development when applying for approval to hold the march. “This is not a coincidence,” the labour rights activist said. He expressed hope that Hongkongers would uphold their beliefs despite any hardships encountered at the moment.

Labour day protest march rally
A Labour Day protest on May 1, 2019. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

The former HKCTU member cited American historian Timothy Snyder, known for his expertise in authoritarian states, in his Facebook post, saying that this setback would not hamper their determination to fight for labour rights.

To ended his statement with an apology to the public.

When asked about To’s claims during a visit to Beijing on Wednesday, Hong Kong’s Security Secretary Chris Tang did not clarify whether national security police had spoken to Wong, and asked the media to inquire with the organisers why their application for the march had been withdrawn. However, he said if the organisers considered themselves incapable of ensuring the safety of the public event, cancelling the march would be a responsible move.

Safety risks

Before the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, Hong Kong would see large-scale Labour Day demonstrations every year with participants from across the political spectrum.

On 11 April, To and Wong filed an application to march from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to the Central Government Offices in Admiralty at 3 p.m. on May 1, with the maximum size of the rally set at 500.

However, the two organisers said last Saturday that they had been interrogated by the Hong Kong police about where they got their funding for the proposed demonstration and how they would guard against violent groups “hijacking” the march.

Hong Kong’s security chief later criticised Wong and To for making “irresponsible” comments that played down the “safety risks” of public rallies. The duo had urged the police not to “exaggerate” the risk of demonstrations being “hijacked.”

Meanwhile, the city’s director of public prosecutions warned that “words are weapons,” and that those who used their words to incite others to commit an offence would be punished.

Labour day protest march rally
A Labour Day march in 2019. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Both Wong and To were among the ex-HKCTU members taken by national security police to assist an investigation last month, after former chief executive of the union coalition Elizabeth Tang was arrested on suspicion of foreign collusion.

The HKCTU announced its decision to disband citing threats to members’ safety in September 2021. It was among the 50-odd civil society groups that folded in the wake of the Beijing-imposed national security law.

While some small-scale public gatherings have recently been granted police approval, they have been subject to stringent measures. At Hong Kong’s first authorised protest against a government policy in about two years, demonstrators were made to wear numbered tags and carry their own cordon lines.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. 

The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

Support HKFP  |  Policies & Ethics  |  Error/typo?  |  Contact Us  |  Newsletter  | Transparency & Annual Report | Apps

legal precedents hong kong
security law transformed hong kong
contact hkfp

Lea Mok is a multimedia reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously contributed to StandNews, The Initium, MingPao and others. She holds a bachelor's degree in Journalism from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.