Hong Kong, China – For nearly 20 years, the Civil Human Rights Front has mobilised some of Hong Kong’s biggest police-permitted protest marches, but it is now being accused by authorities of operating illegally.
The student union of the University of Hong Kong, the alma mater of modern China’s founding father, is being evicted by the administration.
As the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre approaches, all but one of the leaders of the alliance that organises the annual candlelight vigil are behind bars.
Hong Kong has long been home to a vibrant and vociferous civil society, which came into its own in the 10 years leading up to the territory’s 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty.
But barely one year into Beijing’s imposition of the National Security Law – which criminalises activities deemed to be secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces – civil society groups, which the Chinese Communist Party sees as a threat to its rule and a hotbed for subversive activities, are under pressure.
A poster child for such perceived threats has been the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, which for decades has vowed to overthrow the Communist-led government
Even with nearly all the alliance’s leaders in jail and awaiting trial, vice chairwoman Chow Hang-tung says she had no plan to back off.
“Once we yield an inch, authorities will draw the red line even closer,” she said.
Holding the line
Although most of Hong Kong’s civil society has been apolitical historically, the founding of the alliance to aid the 1989 student movement in Beijing marked a watershed.
The group kickstarted mass grassroots mobilisation in the then-British colony at a time when the more politically aware had also begun agitating for direct elections.
A flowering of political parties followed in the early years after the handover, in the hopes that Beijing would deliver on its promise of eventually introducing universal suffrage for the territory’s highest office.
In 2003, an umbrella organisation of civic groups – the Civil Human Rights Front – emerged out of popular opposition to Article 23, national security legislation that was to be enacted by Hong Kong’s legislature.
In 2019, the front was instrumental in bringing millions of protesters to the streets and beating back widely-feared legislation that would have allowed suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial.
But, over the past few weeks, police investigations into the front have triggered mass departures of its member groups and at least two of its main conveners are in detention on charges related to organising a primary to choose democratic legislative candidates and organising a march in 2019.
Still, with legislative elections postponed and Beijing-backed political measures further diluting popular representation, people in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement are hoping civil society can hold the line.
“Even though we’re denied the right to run, we still have a role to play in civil society, if there’s any space allowed by the Chinese Communist Party,” said Alan Leong, chairman of the Civic Party.
In April, Leong rejected open pleas from the party’s four disqualified legislators – all being held on criminal charges – to disband for “safety.”
In response, the party, whose 500-plus members include many lawyers, reaffirmed on its official Facebook page its aim to continue fighting for social justice.
The party’s legal minds have also convened a discussion with NGOs on how to navigate the political minefield created by the national security law.
‘Ear to the ground’
Outside politics, the city’s civil society has still proved itself both nimble – and indispensable – especially in times of crisis.
“Social mobilisation has its place and its value,” said Edmund Cheng, a political scientist at City University of Hong Kong who, among several other academics, has published studies examining how civil society sprang into action at the start of the pandemic early last year.
“Civic groups often have their ear to the ground and therefore are adept in delivering social services and public goods.”
But, the political reality remains that non-liberal regimes in the Asia Pacific invariably seek to contain civil society as a tool for control, as Tai Wei Lim, research fellow adjunct at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, has found.
“To survive, civic groups must align their goals with the central government’s and be willing to be co-opted on certain issues,” Lim told Al Jazeera.
The most likely scenarios, Lim said, will see Hong Kongers “take their struggle into non-institutional forms through a network of individuals or operate from overseas.”
Already, mutual aid groups have emerged to provide assistance to political exile and immigrant communities in England and Taiwan.
“Our advantage is that our network is stronger and there are more linkages and international connections and exposure,” said Chow of the alliance. “So, I hope our civil society will be more resilient.”
That said, Chow believes Hong Kong’s civil society will prove stronger than the sum of its parts: Every public stance is amplified.
Even though the government has banned the Tiananmen vigil for the second year in a row, organisers are urging people to light a candle – in the memory of the thousands thought to have been killed in Beijing in 1989, and for democracy itself.
“For 30 years that’s been the most powerful sign of resistance,” Chow said. “If it were merely symbolic, the regime wouldn’t have tried so hard to suppress it.”