Pro-democracy group downsizes as freedom of expression is silenced

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Pro-democracy group downsizes as freedom of expression is silenced
People hold LED candles to mark the anniversary of the military crackdown on a pro-democracy student movement in Beijing, outside Victoria Park in Hong Kong, on June 4, 2021. (Kin Cheung/File/AP Photo)

HONG KONG – After Beijing increased its crackdown on opposition activity in the semi-autonomous Chinese city, one of Hong Kong’s most established pro-democracy civic organisations announced layoffs and a halving of the size of its steering committee.

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China is best known for organising an annual rally and candlelight vigil in Tiananmen Square in Beijing to remember those killed in the bloody 1989 suppression of pro-democracy protests.

In a statement issued Saturday, the group said that seven of its 14 remaining steering committee members had decided to resign in the face of “growing political and legal risks.” Three of the seven remaining members are currently imprisoned for protest-related activities: chairman Lee Cheuk-yan, as well as vice chairs Albert Ho Chun-yan and Chow Hang-tung.

The layoffs would take effect at the end of the month to “ensure their safety,” according to the statement. While the 32-year-old organisation acknowledged that the changes would have an impact on its operations, it pledged that “regardless of whatever difficulties or challenges we face, the alliance will continue to grit our teeth and move onwards one step at a time.”

Last year, following months of anti-government protests in 2019, Beijing imposed a broad national security law on Hong Kong. The criteria for elected officials have been narrowed to those who meet a loosely defined patriotism standard. The Legislative Council has been reorganised to ensure that pro-Beijing delegates have an overwhelming majority, while most of the city’s leading opposition voices have been imprisoned, intimidated into silence, or fled abroad to seek asylum.

Apple Daily, the city’s last remaining pro-democracy newspaper, was forced to close after authorities arrested staff and froze assets. While the city remains a major business and financial centre, many Hong Kong residents are leaving, and some multinational corporations have begun relocating their operations and employees due to legal concerns.

Tens of thousands had attended the annual June 4 commemoration of the 1989 suppression, as well as a July 1 pro-democracy march and rally commemorating Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule.

Both have been prohibited for the past two years due to COVID-19 restrictions, and there is no indication that they will be permitted to be held in the future.

While China claims the new restrictions are targeted measures aimed at restoring order and ensuring Hong Kong’s future prosperity, critics at home and abroad say they are a betrayal of Beijing’s commitment to maintaining civil liberties in Hong Kong for the next 50 years after the handover.

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