One of Hong Kong‘s last remaining opposition groups has cancelled the only pro-democracy protest planned for when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the city on Friday after its members were threatened by national security police.
The League of Social Democrats (LSD) said on Facebook they had called off action on July 1, the 25th anniversary of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China, after members and friends were “talked to” by the authorities.
“It is a difficult situation, and I wish for your apologies,” the group wrote.
It was expected to be the sole protest in the city on a date that has traditionally seen a raft of activity by activist groups and Hong Kong residents. LSD has held a protest pushing for basic democratic freedoms on July 1 every year since it was established in 2006.
“Hong Kong civil society has become essentially nonexistent,” Avery Ng Man-yuen, ex-chairperson of the LSD, told The Telegraph this week. “Ninety per cent of the opposition leaders are in prison right now.”
Mr Ng was released from jail in April after being detained for 14 months for participating in an unauthorised assembly in 2019.
During that time, numerous political dissidents fled into exile, major independent news outlets were forced to shutter, and elections were held for the local legislature that the West has decried as a sham.
“When I came back out, the whole city had changed,” he said.
Hong Kong residents are now more wary and silent, fearful that any criticism of the government could be interpreted as breaking the law, he said.
“We never know where the ‘red line’ is,” Mr Ng said. “Even if you asked the national security police, they couldn’t tell. Obviously it’s because the ‘red line’ is constantly shifting.”
This year, July 1 will also be used to inaugurate the city’s new government led by newly elected chief executive John Lee, an ex-police officer considered by many to be even more hardline and pro-Beijing than his predecessor Carrie Lam.
Xi’s first trip outside China in more than two years
Mr Xi is set to attend, making his first trip outside of mainland China since the pandemic began in early 2020 – a sign of how important keeping a grip on Hong Kong is for him.
“The major reason for going to Hong Kong is still that Beijing needs to demonstrate that Hong Kong has stabilised and they have been successful in restoring Hong Kong’s political order,” Dongshu Liu, an assistant professor of Chinese politics at City University of Hong Kong, told Bloomberg.
The changes wrought over the past two years have been dramatic.
More than 1,000 demonstrations used to take place annually in Hong Kong, with the police’s approval rate for demonstration applications close to 100 per cent, according to data analysed by local newspaper Ming Pao.
That dropped off sharply after 2020, when the national security law was implemented and the Covid-19 pandemic broke out.
Just 129 out of 3,749 protest applications were approved that year. From 2021 up until now, not a single one has been approved out of only 75 applications.
‘We’ll do as much as we can, for as long as we can’
People who participate in protests are now routinely prosecuted – under the national security law, Covid-related bans on public gatherings, a law against advertising on the street, and the colonial crime of sedition.
“The government is equipped with a whole set of tools, which they can choose from to suppress whatever opinions they do not wish to hear,” Mr Ng said.
The group has tried to be creative. On the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4 this year, their members stood in silence on the street with an “X” marked on their white masks. They were quickly escorted away by police.
Amid all of this, the future for civil society critical of the government looks bleak.
Most such groups were forced to close last year, leaving LSD as one of the few remaining opposition voices. But they too are facing challenges.
Former chairperson Leung Kwok-hung has been detained and charged with “conspiracy to commit subversion,” which carries a punishment of up to life in prison, for participating in an unofficial election primary.
Chan Po-ying, LSD’s current chairperson and Mr Leung’s wife, said that now when she campaigns on the streets, police record her every movement.
“Of course our strategies have to change given the circumstances,” Ms Chan said.
“I have a clear conscience; everything we do is within the limits of the law. All we are advocating for is the safeguard of fundamental rights, the freedom of opinion, the freedom of thought.”
Ms Chan said the group would not disband, but admitted they had considered it.
Keeping going may seem futile, Mr Ng said, “but this is exactly what the regime wants us to believe – that everything is pointless and hopeless. We refuse to accept this as reality.”
“If we are the few remaining and are still able and willing to speak up, we will do as much as we can, for as long as we can.”
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