Two successful bids for stalls at next year’s Lunar New Year Fair by members of the Democratic Party have been rejected by the Hong Kong government, citing a recently added term giving officials the right to dismiss bids without saying why.

Lo Kin-Hei, chair of the pro-democracy political party, told local media on Tuesday that the party had secured the first stall at the Victoria Park fair with a bid of HK$25,000 on Tuesday morning. However, officials from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) rejected the bid and refused to sign an agreement.

Auction of 2024 Lunar New Year Fair Stalls is held on November 15, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
Auction of 2024 Lunar New Year Fair Stalls is held on November 14 and 15, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

At the auction site on Wednesday morning, HKFP observed that the HK$25,000 bid for the stall in question had been crossed out.

Lo said government officials had cited Article 10 of the Auction Conditions and Requirements in rejected the bid. It stipulates that the government “reserves the absolute right” not to enter into a Licence Agreement with any successful bidder “without cause.”

HKFP has reached out to the FEHD for comment.

Auction of 2024 Lunar New Year Fair Stalls is held on November 15, 2023. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.
Auction of 2024 Lunar New Year Fair Stalls is held on November 14 and 15, 2023. The first stall was successfully bid by Democratic Party with HK$25,000 but the bid was rejected by FEHD. Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Additionally, Bonnie Ng, vice chair of the Democratic Party and a former district councillor, had her bid rejected by the FEHD citing the same term. Ng said on Facebook on Tuesday that she had wanted to sell goods from her store at the fair to make up for business lost after the landlord of her store in Sheung Wan did not renew the lease.

Ng wrote that 15 minutes after successfully bidding for a stall and submitting her information to the FEHD, officials asked her to sign a statement in a meeting room stating that her bid had been rejected under Article 10.

Ng said she felt “shocked” by the government’s decision.

Lo Kin-hei
Lo Kin-hei. Photo: Ocean Tham/HKFP.

For the 2019 Lunar New Year Fair, HKFP found that FEHD had introduced terms to the Auctions Conditions and Requirements. Among those added were stipulations that anyone who chanted slogans or displayed messages that would “disturb or affect public order or public safety” were not allowed to bid, and those reserving the government’s right not to sign agreements with bidders without providing reasons.

Fair with political messages

Holding stalls at Hong Kong’s Lunar New Year Fairs was a tradition among the city’s political parties. Pro-democracy parties like the Democratic Party and the League of Social Democrats, as well as defunct parties such as Demosisto, the Civic Party, and People Power, used to sell products with political messages, writing decorative banners and raise funds for their organisations.

Demosisto Lunar New Year fair
Political group Demosisto’s stall at 2019 Lunar New Year fair. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Miaxsum Hodlma.

In early 2017, the authorities terminated agreements with defunct pro-democracy parties National Party and Youngspiration after they successfully bid on stalls. FEHD said in letters to the two parties that the stalls were withdrawn because authorities believed that they were going to sell products with “Hong Kong Independence” messages and that the National Party might “harm public order.”

In 2021, FEHD terminated an agreement the with Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the defunct group which used to organise the annual vigil for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, after the fair had started. The department said the group had displayed banners unrelated to Lunar New Year.

Lee Cheuk-yan
Lee Cheuk-yan. File photo: Etan Liam, via Flickr.

Lee Cheuk-yan, then-chair of the Alliance, said on Commercial Radio that it amounted to “political suppression.” Lee said the group had run stalls displaying political banners at the fair for over 30 years. He questioned whether the government’s goal was to have “zero political slogans” in Hong Kong.

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Irene Chan is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press and has an interest in covering political and social change. She previously worked at Initium Media as chief editor for Hong Kong news and was a community organiser at the Society for Community Organisation serving the underprivileged. She has a bachelor’s degree in Journalism from Fudan University and a master’s degree in social work from the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Irene is the recipient of two Society of Publishers in Asia (SOPA) awards and three honourable mentions for her investigative, feature and video reporting. She also received a Human Rights Press Award for multimedia reporting and an honourable mention for feature writing.