In May, the city witnessed a series of disappearances: the Civic Party, Hong Kong’s second-largest pro-democracy party, voted to dissolve; a prominent political cartoonist had his comic strip suspended after 40 years; hundreds of books were purged from public libraries; and a monument commemorating Tiananmen Crackdown was seized by Hong Kong’s national security police. Changes were also proposed to the composition and election of local-level advisory bodies, the District Council, in an attempt to “improve district administration”.

Hong Kong book store showcasing books of Tiananmen crackdown in May.
Hong Kong book store showcasing books of Tiananmen crackdown in May. Photo: Kyle Lam/ HKFP.

As the 34th anniversary of Tiananmen crackdown loomed, top officials failed to give clear answers to questions over the legality of mourning those who died when the People’s Liberation Army dispersed protesters in Beijing on June 4, 1989. Landmark national security cases continued to be heard at the city’s courts, with Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai losing a legal battle over hiring a foreign counsel for his defence team, and more witnesses testifying during the trial involving 47 democrats.

No clear answers on Tiananmen commemoration

Hong Kong leader John Lee failed to give a yes-no answer over the legality of mourning the victims of the Tiananmen crackdown ahead of its anniversary on Sunday, saying only that residents must obey the law and consider the consequences of their actions.

June 4 Tiananmen Square Massacre Victoria Park 2021 candles
People hold up candles in Causeway Bay on June 4, 2021. Photo: Jimmy Lam/HKFP.

“Everybody should act in accordance with the law and think of what they do, so as to be ready to face the consequences,” Lee said.

Hong Kong’s security chief also evaded questions over whether publicly mourning victims of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown is a violation of the Beijing-imposed national security law.

District Council overhaul

The Hong Kong government officially tabled a bill for overhauling the District Council.

According to the bill, the number of District Council seats democratically chosen by the public are to be slashed to around 20 per cent. Only 88 seats in the polls scheduled for November will be directly elected by the public – down from 452 in the last poll. The number of overall seats will fall from 479 to 470.

John Lee Erick Tsang Eric Chan Paul Lam
Hong Kong government officials attend a press conference on May 2, 2023 about the proposed amendments to the District Councils. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Aside from the 88 seats voted on by the public, 179 will be appointed by the chief executive – a system that was previously abolished in 2016. The 27 ex-officio seats will remain.

Introducing the bill to the Legislative Council, Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Erick Tsang claimed that at the peak of the 2019 extradition bill protests, “anti-China and Hong Kong elements” took advantage of “loopholes” in the District Council election system to “swindle” votes by politicising various issues and provoking hatred towards the government.

Decades-old satirical comic strip axed

Prominent political cartoonist Wong Kei-kwan, better known as Zunzi, had his comic strip suspended after a satirical post was criticised by government bodies.

Zunzi had published his satirical takes on current affairs and public policies in the city since 1983 in Ming Pao. The newspaper printed his final comic strip on May 13.

Zunzi's comic strip on Ming Pao published on May 11, 2023.
Zunzi’s comic strip on Ming Pao published on May 11, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The famed cartoonist is no stranger to criticism from the government, having drawn the ire of at least five government departments, including the police and the powerful Security Bureau.

Between June 2019 and January 2020, as Hong Kong was gripped by months-long pro-democracy protests and unrest, the city’s political cartoons and artwork scene flourished.

However, since Beijing enacted the national security law in Hong Kong in June 2020, political comics have become a rarer sight in the city. Many have left, citing shrinking freedom of expression.

‘Unrecommended books’ purged

Since 2020, around 40 per cent of books and recordings about political topics or figures were removed from public libraries, Ming Pao reported. Of 468 political books and recordings identified by Ming Pao, at least 195 had been removed – 96 of them in the past year, the newspaper reported.

Books by Zunzi were also among listings removed from public libraries.

books off the shelves
Here are some of the Chinese volumes that have been removed from Hong Kong public libraries. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Titles removed from the shelves of Hong Kong public libraries could still be bought from book stores, Chief Executive John Lee said following public libraries, adding that libraries must ensure that books on their shelves did not breach any of the city’s laws.

The city’s leader also said that the Hong Kong government has a duty to identify books with “bad ideologies.”

“Books we are lending to the public are those recommended by the government. We would not recommend books that are illegal, have copyright issues or those with bad ideologies,” Lee said.

Tiananmen crackdown statue ‘seized’

The Pillar of Shame – a monument commemorating those who died in the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown – was seized by Hong Kong’s national security police investigating an “incitement to subversion” case on May 5.

Pillar of Shame University of Hong Kong HKUSU
Members of the University of Hong Kong students’ union stand in front of the Pillar of Shame. File photo: Supplied.

The seize of the sculpture was conducted with a court warrant, a police spokesperson later said in a statement. “Like any other case, to collect evidence following progress of investigation to take forward the relevant case is legal, reasonable and rational,” the statement read.

The statue’s creator, Danish artist Jens Galschiøt, told HKFP that he thought it was “completely crazy” that the sculpture was allegedly being used as evidence against pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

The Security Bureau hit back at calls for the return of a monument.

47 democrats trial continues

The high-profile trial concerning 47 pro-democracy figures marked its 60th day on May 31. During the month, the court heard from the third and forth accomplice witness who testified against their fellow democrats, an anonymous witness was grilled over “secretly recorded” footage, the prosecution called witnesses including a returning officer and a national security police officer, and arguments relating to the co-conspirators rule.

Ben Chung
Ben Chung. File photo: Ben Chung, via Facebook.

Former Sai Kung District Council chairperson Ben Chung became the third accomplice witness, while the fourth was granted anonymity to testify over secretly recorded footage.

That witness denied that recording a meeting of Hong Kong pro-democracy figures without their permission was not an intrusion of privacy.

gwyneth ho legco democratic camp primary
Gwyneth Ho. Photo: Gwyneth Ho, via Facebook.

Amy Yeung, a returning officer during the 2020 Legislative Council elections, said that she was not convinced that defendant Gwyneth Ho would uphold the city’s mini-constitution.

The court also discussed the use of the co-conspirator’s rule, which allows for statements made by an alleged co-conspirator to be admitted as evidence against other members of the co-conspiracy.

Jimmy Lai will face 83-day trial

Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai is expected to face an 83-day national security trial, a court heard.

Jimmy Lai Apple Daily
Hong Kong pro-democracy media mogul Jimmy Lai. File photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

Lai, 75, who has been remanded in custody since December 2020, originally faced a total of four charges under the Beijing-imposed national security law and the colonial-era sedition law. He stands accused of two counts of conspiracy to collude with foreign forces and one count of collusion with foreign forces. He has also been charged under the sedition law over allegedly seditious publications.

His bid to halt the national security trial against him was rejected in May by the city’s Court of First Instance.

Overseas lawyers restricted

Hong Kong’s legislature unanimously passed a bill essentially allowing the chief executive to decide whether overseas counsels can take part in the city’s national security cases.

Timothy Owen
Jimmy Lai lost a legal battle with the government over putting King’s Counsel Timothy Owen (pictured) on his defense team. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The administration raised the proposal after four consecutive failed attempt to bar Jimmy Lai from hiring a foreign barrister to represent him in a national security trial.

The decision means that any overseas counsel not qualified to practice in Hong Kong will have to go through two hurdles before they can participate in national security cases in the city.

National security case against 23-year-old

A national security case against a 23-year-old Hong Kong student, Cheung Ho-yeung, was moved to the city’s High Court, where the maximum penalty for conspiracy to commit terrorist activities is life imprisonment..

Cheung has been charged over allegedly conspiring with others “with a view to coercing” the central and Hong Kong governments, or “intimidating the public in order to pursue [a] political agenda, to organise, plan, commit, participate in or threaten to commit terrorist activities” between April 1 and July 5, 2021.

Teen’s guilty plea for terrorism

A Hong Kong teenager pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit terrorist activities under the national security law. Five others, all of whom were secondary school students at the time of their prosecution, also pleaded guilty to conspiring to cause explosions.

According to the case details, the group planned to target court buildings with explosives. One of them was a member of self-proclaimed revolutionary group Returning Valiant.

Civic Party dissolved

Hong Kong pro-democracy political party Civic Party voted to dissolve. The decision came after the party’s executive committee posts were left vacant as no members filed nominations to take up positions.

Civic Party Chairperson Alan Leong after announcing the party's dissolution on May 27, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
Civic Party Chairperson Alan Leong after announcing the party’s dissolution on May 27, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Members of the Civic Party voted to wind up the company, saying that a liquidator had already been appointed. Civic Party Chairperson Alan Leong thanked “all liked-minded people” who joined the party’s “long walk to democracy for different parts of the journey” in a statement.

Legislation of Hong Kong’s own security law

Secretary for Justice Paul Lam said he was very likely to discuss the legislation of Hong Kong’s own security law with the Chinese authorities. He set off for his first visit to Beijing since taking office on May 30.

paul lam secretary for justice
Secretary for Justice Paul Lam. File photo: GovHK.

Lam earlier questioned people’s concern about the legislation. “People who are anxious [about it]… what are they afraid of? What did they hear that made them scared?” he said on RTHK.

Lam said Hong Kong would balance the protection of national security with upholding human rights when legislating the city’s own security law.

Hong Kong 140th on Press Freedom Index

Hong Kong continued to languish near the bottom of the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) press freedom ranking according to the latest index released on World Press Freedom Day.

The 2023 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index
[Click to enlarge] The 2023 Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index map. Photo: RSF.

The city ranked 140th among the 180 regions in the international media watchdog’s latest ranking, trailing behind Colombia and Cameroon. China ranked 179th, just above North Korea.

Hong Kong’s press freedom ranking rose eight places from last year’s 148, but the free expression NGO said the situation had not improved and the move was mostly due to the movement of other territories.

Chinese diplomats visited Korean NGO

Three officials from the Chinese embassy in South Korea visited the office of a Korean organisation after it awarded a rights prize to a detained Hong Kong Tiananmen crackdown vigil activist. The May 18 Foundation confirmed the encounter with HKFP, saying officials had visited and expressed their opinions during a 40-minute meeting.

Chow Hang-tung
Chow Hang-tung. Photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

The NGO awarded Chow Hang-tung – the ex-vice-chairperson of the defunct Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China as this year’s winner of the Gwangju Prize for Human Rights.

Google’s national security takedown requests surged

The Hong Kong government requested that Google remove 183 items between July and December 2022 – mostly from YouTube – with the US tech giant denying almost half of the requests.

In total during 2022, the government requested that Google remove 330 items, among which 57 were related to national security. It represented the highest year-on-year increase compared to other categories which related to issues such as impersonation, privacy and security.

Google . File photo: Chien Chih-Hung/Taiwan Presidential Office, via Flickr.

In 2021, Hong Kong requested that Google remove 116 items, with just six related to national security.

US called for sanctions on 29 Hong Kong judges 

Hong Kong authorities condemned US lawmakers’ calls for sanctions on 29 Hong Kong judges in order to “counter the erosion of democratic freedoms.” Such appeals amounted to making a “shameless, sinister and malicious” attempt to interfere with the city’s judicial process, it said.

Judges Judiciary
Hong Kong judges. File photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

A report by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China titled “One City, Two Legal Systems: Hong Kong Judges’ Role in Rights Violations under the National Security Law,” was published May 11.

Hong Kong slammed it as making “slandering remarks and despicable threats” against the city’s judges.

US-sanctioned officers promoted

Three officers sanctioned by the US were promoted within the Hong Kong police’s National Security Department, with two becoming leading figures. Chief Executive John Lee said the promoted officers were “fearless” in the face of Washington’s “bullying act”.

The police announced that the chief executive had appointed Andrew Kan as the head of its National Security Department following his predecessor Edwina Lau’s retirement.

Andrew Kan Kai-yan John Lee
Deputy Commissioner of Police (National Security), Kan Kai-yan (left), takes the oath of office in front of Chief Executive John Lee on May 2. Photo: GovHK.

Meanwhile, Kan’s former post as director of national security would be taken up by Kelvin Kong, after the latter was promoted by police chief Raymond Siu to become a senior assistant commissioner of police. Lee also appointed Steve Li, formerly a superintendent, to become the chief superintendent of police at the National Security Department.

‘A vaguely defined criminal statute’

A Beijing office criticised a US Senate committee in early May, calling them “political fabricators” after they passed a resolution to condemn “Beijing’s destruction of Hong Kong’s democracy and rule of law.”

White House Washington DC USA
The White House in Washington, D.C. Photo: Frank Camp, via Flickr.

The newly passed resolution by the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations called the Beijing-implemented national security law “a vaguely defined criminal statute that includes overly broad charges and extraterritorial reach to punish people for exercising their fundamental rights and freedoms.”

Arrest and prosecution tally

As of May 25, 251 persons had been arrested over suspected acts and activities that endangered national security since the legislation was enacted on June 30, 2020, the Security Bureau told HKFP. Among them, 154 persons and five companies had been charged.

Victoria Park Causeway Bay June 4 Tiananmen carnival booth
Organisers of a carnival at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay on May 31, 2023. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

According to the Bureau, 79 people have been convicted or are awaiting sentencing. Among them, 29 were convicted or are awaiting sentencing under the national security law. It did not specify the offences committed by the remaining 42 defendants.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.