As Hong Kong's civil society buckles, one journalist group tries to hold on

A member of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China bows after announcing the group will disband in Hong Kong on Sept 25, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - Unions have folded. Political parties have shut down. Independent media outlets and civil rights groups have disappeared. The Hong Kong government, its authority backed fully by Beijing, is shutting down the city's civil society, once the most vibrant in Asia, one organisation at a time.

But one group, the Hong Kong Journalists Association, has refused to fold, even as Hong Kong's security secretary repeatedly singles it out for public criticism.

"We will try to fight to the last moment," said Mr Ronson Chan, the association's chairman. "But honestly, it's a gamble. How cruelly will the Beijing government treat us? We know the history of journalists in the People's Republic of China."

Authorities have used a national security law, which was introduced last year after months of widespread anti-government protest, to silence dissent. Dozens of groups have been forced to disband.

Many face investigations. Police have arrested the leaders of some groups and have used the security law to force them to disclose information about membership and funding. Some groups have been the targets of attacks from officials and state-controlled newspapers.

Neither part of the government nor the private sector, civil society provides a bulwark against the excesses of both. It gives people a way to be heard when the powers that be are against them and helps responds to problems governments won't address.

The actions against the labour unions and nonprofit organisations reach beyond Hong Kong, too. Because of the city's relative freedom, it functions as the centre for efforts to protect rights in China and the broader region. But that status is eroding under the crackdown.

"These groups were important not just to Hong Kong or even China, but to all of Asia," said Ms Maya Wang, a senior China researcher for Human Rights Watch. "Now, bit by bit, that fabric of civil society is being taken apart."

Human Rights Watch, which is based in New York, left Hong Kong after it was penalised by China in retaliation for US legislation supporting Hong Kong protesters in 2019.

The biggest local group to fall has been the Confederation of Trade Unions (CTU), an umbrella organisation made up of more than 70 affiliate unions. It voted Oct 3 to disband in the face of growing pressure from the government.

The confederation helped organise a dockworkers' strike in 2013 and a street cleaners' strike in 2018. Its political activities, including protests and a general strike during the 2019 unrest that roiled the city, probably made it a target of authorities.

"Union activity is very unglamorous in Hong Kong," said Ms Wang, citing the city's weak labour protections. "There is basically no reward, but they persisted anyway."

The confederation's general-secretary, Lee Cheuk-yan, is serving time in prison for illegal assembly over the 2019 protests. He and Carol Ng, the group's former chairwoman, have also been charged with subversion in separate cases under the security law. The group said it was forced to dissolve after its leaders were threatened.

"A few of our leaders received quite intimidating and concrete warnings that they were facing threats to their person or even their families if the CTU remained in operation," said Mr Fan Cheung-fung, a research officer for the group. He said the threats came both from Hong Kong and Chinese security services but declined to give details.

One of the confederation's biggest affiliates, the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union, said it would dissolve this year. That organisation was the city's largest teachers union, with more than 100,000 members, but it started disbanding after state media attacked it as a "malignant tumour" and the government said it would no longer recognise the group.

Activist groups have also been decimated. The Civil Human Rights Front, which had organised large marches, closed in August after Beijing's office in Hong Kong accused it of opposing China and police opened an investigation into its funding.

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organised an annual vigil to mourn those killed in the 1989 crackdown on the Tiananmen protest movement, disbanded after authorities began looking into its funding and accused most of its leadership of national security offences, including subversion. Authorities removed displays from the group's museum and blocked access in Hong Kong to the group's website.

"The past 32 years, with the Hong Kong Alliance keeping those memories alive, signalled that Hong Kong was different from mainland China," Mr Richard Tsoi, the only officer of the group not in custody, said of the vigils. "But things have changed significantly." Many groups continue to operate, but some fear that the crackdown could spread.

"We are not interested at all in politics," said Mr Brian Wong, a member of Liber Research Community, an independent research institute that focuses on land use. "But from what we can see on the mainland, eventually all of civil society can be seen as a threat."

The Hong Kong Journalists Association's relative distance from politics may have also insulated it thus far. Mr Chan, the union's head, says its leadership has been hardened by years of covering crackdowns and street protests.

They have few illusions about the difficulties that they will face but want to continue on because of the needs of their colleagues, including hundreds of recently unemployed Apple Daily journalists, he added. The aggressive pro-democracy newspaper was forced to close in June after its accounts were frozen and several top editors and executives arrested.

In this photo taken on June 24, 2021, an Apple Daily supporter reads the final edition of the newspaper at a shopping mall in Hong Kong. PHOTO: REUTERS

"I told them even if I'm arrested, please don't disband," he said. "And if the pressure is too great, then put it to the members."

The journalists group, which has fewer than 500 members, was founded in 1968 to help media workers organise and to promote press freedom. This year it has grown increasingly focused on helping unemployed journalists, including providing spending vouchers to former Apple Daily employees.

Mr Chris Tang, Hong Kong's security secretary, started a broad assault against the journalists association in September.

In an interview with the state-controlled Ta Kung Pao newspaper, he criticised the union for allowing student members and asked why its leadership was made up of journalists from "a few media organisations" - a reference to outlets that are generally critical of the government. He called on the group to disclose its membership, a refrain some pro-Beijing media and politicians have continued for weeks.

The association responded that the only students who are allowed to join are college students studying journalism and that revealing the union's membership list would most likely violate Hong Kong's privacy laws.

Mr Chan said the union has members from most mainstream and even state-controlled publications. Another union, the Hong Kong Federation of Journalists, represents pro-Beijing media.

"We can't underestimate how much danger we are in," said Mr Chan, who is an editor with Stand News, an online publication. "But I think we still have some room."

After Mr Tang, who was Hong Kong's police commissioner, was appointed to the security secretary role in June, Mr Chan sent a congratulatory message. He knew Mr Tang from years of covering the police.

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