Hong Kong's civil society 'withers' under national security purge

Activist Wong Yat-chin has been arrested five times for hosting booths or making speeches. PHOTO: AFP

HONG KONG (AFP) - Hundreds of elected community leaders in Hong Kong have resigned and dozens of civil society groups have disbanded as China remoulds the finance hub in its own image.

Just days before Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on the city last year, student Wong Yat-chin founded a new group called Student Politicism.

He had just finished his exams and wanted to keep opposition voices alive in a city supposedly still guaranteed free speech by setting up small street booths to discuss issues such as democracy and prisoner rights.

Since then he has been arrested five times for hosting booths or making speeches.

"The red lines are being tightened each day," the 20-year-old told AFP.

He said some venues have quietly urged his group not to turn up after one was questioned and reminded of anti-coronavirus rules by police recently, a tactic commonly used on the Chinese mainland.

"Even the most peaceful and rational voices are not allowed. And there are so many groups disbanding themselves," he lamented.

Civil society, he said, is "ebbing and withering".

'Patriots rule Hong Kong'

China has used a double-blow knockout on dissent in Hong Kong after the city was convulsed by huge and often violent democracy protests two years ago.

The first was the national security law with more than 120 arrests so far, almost entirely for political views.

The other is an ongoing campaign dubbed "Patriots Rule Hong Kong", where all public office holders and local politicians must be vetted for their loyalty.

Most of the city's prominent democracy leaders are either in jail, facing prosecution or have fled overseas.

And a wave of resignations has swept through the city as community leaders try to avoid receiving a knock on the door from police.

More than 250 district councillors have now quit ahead of the new political loyalty tests.

District councils were the only elections in Hong Kong where all seats were directly chosen by voters and in 2019 pro-democracy figures won in a landslide, hammering pro-Beijing parties.

Some resignations began soon after the new loyalty rules were announced.

But they snowballed in recent weeks when government sources gave interviews to local media suggesting those who were disqualified might have to pay back all operating expenses.

Lo Kin-hei, chairman of Hong Kong's largest and oldest opposition group the Democratic Party, was one of those who stepped down.

"The crackdown came at a speed and frequency that went far beyond our imagination, leaving us trying to catch our breath and collect our thoughts one year on," he told AFP.

Hong Kong was a place that used to tolerate dissent and political plurality, a stark contrast to one-party China.

But Lo said not a single government official had reached out to him since he took over as head of the Democratic Party late last year.

"We are at the lowest point for the past 30 years," he added.

'Keep the flame alive'

It is not just politicians resigning.

Moderate organisations and unions representing doctors, lawyers, civil servants have also disbanded over the last year.

According to an AFP tally, at least 30 organisations have shut down or gone silent in the last 12 months, including the Progressive Lawyers Group and several organisations representing medics.

One of the largest doctor unions - the Public Doctors' Association - has mulled calling it quits, former president Arisina Ma told AFP, citing the "loss of space... to speak up".

"It has become really dangerous," she said.

"In the past you might be brushed aside if the government did not like your opinions. But now they can come after you." Diplomats have also complained that many Hong Kong groups now refuse to meet them, fearful of being accused of "foreign collusion", one of the new national security crimes.

Hong Kong authorities say the security law has returned stability while political vetting will ensure that "anti-China" forces are neutered.

The city's legislature has been cleared of opposition and all future lawmakers will be vetted. Less than a quarter of seats will be directly elected.

"The space for making gradual progress has disappeared," Lo said, adding it was now up to Hong Kongers as individuals to keep civil society going.

"For now, we must keep the flame alive, however small it is," he added.

Student leader Wong said he often felt pessimistic and helpless.

But he still plans to press ahead with his street booths "as a reminder to others that someone hasn't given up".

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