The pro-opposition group behind some of Hong Kong’s largest protests announced on Sunday it had disbanded, but police vowed to press ahead with investigating it while Beijing said the outfit should not be spared from the legal consequences of its actions.
Hours after the 19-year-old Civil Human Rights Front issued a statement on its dissolution, the force said it was following up on the group’s breach of the Societies Ordinance.
Police had been investigating the legality of the front’s operations since April, and authorities said the organisation had not provided requested information about its members, activities and finances within a designated time period.
“[The front] has been operating illegally,” the force said. “Police reiterate that an organisation and its members remain criminally liable for the offence committed, regardless of the disbandment of the organisation or the resignation of its members. The force will continue to go after any organisation or anybody who violates the national security law or other Hong Kong legislation.”
The State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office (HKMAO) accused the front of colluding with foreign forces in staging “colour revolutions”, a reference to protests in the Middle East and eastern Europe that forced governments from power.
“The front realised its behaviour has severely touched the bottom line of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, violated the national security law and other Hong Kong laws and is currently under investigation by police. It has gone into a cul-de-sac and thus announced it had dissolved in haste,” the office’s spokesman said. “But it will be dreaming if it thinks it could escape legal responsibilities.”
Only by going after such organisations through legal means could the city rebuild law and order, he added.
Earlier on Sunday, the front said it was forced to close as no members were willing to take part in the work of its secretariat.
“Over the past year, the government, in the name of the Covid-19 pandemic, has turned down protest applications by the front and different organisations. Many of our member groups are under oppression, with civil society being placed under unprecedented tough challenges,” it said.
While the front had originally hoped to continue to fight for its causes, the secretariat had failed to maintain its operations after convenor Figo Chan Ho-wun was jailed for 18 months in May over an unauthorised 2019 protest, the group admitted.
“We have no choice but to announce our dissolution, as we have no members participating in the secretariat in the next term,” it said, adding its trustee had been directed to donate its HK$1.6 million (US$205,560) in assets it owned to “suitable bodies”.
The front expressed gratitude to residents for their years of support, including the historic 2003 rally against proposed national security legislation, the 2014 Occupy movement and the 2019 anti-government protests.
“Our calls resonated across the entire city. We let the world see Hong Kong, let the light shine in the darkness, and let democracy and freedom take root in people’s hearts,” it said. “Although the front no longer exists today, we believe different organisations will continue to uphold their beliefs and support civil society, without forgetting why they started.”
The move came less than a week after the Professional Teachers’ Union (PTU), the largest for any single profession in the city, announced its disbandment amid political pressure, dealing yet another blow to the embattled opposition camp since Beijing imposed a national security law on the city in June of last year.
The Post reported last Wednesday the front’s member groups would discuss on Friday whether to endorse a motion on disbanding the organisation, and its latest statement confirmed the decision was indeed made at that internal meeting.
Police chief Raymond Siu Chak-yee told pro-Beijing media last week the front could have violated the national security law as it had hosted a series of unlawful assemblies in recent years. He warned that authorities had gathered evidence and could take action against “unlawful groups” at any time.
Joining the HKMAO’s condemnation, the central government’s liaison office accused the umbrella body of several crimes.
“Many of the illegal assemblies and violent confrontations that took place since the city’s handover to Chinese rule were actually incited, planned or organised by the front,” the office said. “It has colluded with foreign forces, challenged the red line of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and the city’s constitutional order and severely poisoned the social atmosphere, which has pushed the city towards the abyss.”
Neither office issued such statements over the disbandment of the PTU last week.
State news agency Xinhua, meanwhile, claimed the front had opposed China and disrupted the city.
Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political scientist at Chinese University, said the front had played a unique role in the pro-democracy movement as it was the only organiser with “large-scale mobilisation” power.
“It did not have any party affiliation and that allowed it to be the ‘highest common factor’ within the camp,” he said. “In the absence of the front, it is going to be fairly difficult for large-scale protests, in the tens of thousands, to happen in Hong Kong. That is probably what Beijing and the local government will like to see.”
Choy said the disbandment was not an isolated incident but a reflection of Beijing’s determination to crush civil rights organisations after its crackdown on political parties.
The next in line would probably be the Confederation of Trade Unions, which gathers pro-democracy unions, and the Law Society and Bar Association, which serves lawyers and barristers, respectively.
Beijing’s mouthpieces had been attacking the barrister’s body for placing politics above its profession and warned the more moderate Law Society – set to hold its council elections on August 24 – against taking a similar path.
A leading human rights group warned that PTU’s collapse followed so quickly by the front’s dissolution pointed to “concerning domino effect”.
“Hong Kong’s draconian national security law has triggered an accelerating disappearance of independent civil society groups from the city,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, head of Amnesty International’s China team.
“The [front] has organised, often in close collaboration with the police, large-scale peaceful rallies in Hong Kong for 20 years without being accused of breaking any law. Its demise is yet more evidence that Hongkongers’ rights to freedom of association, expression and peaceful assembly can no longer be taken for granted under the authorities’ obsession with ‘national security’.”
Rosenzweig urged the authorities to respect and guarantee the rights of all people to associate freely.
Founded in 2002, the front was composed of human rights and pro-democracy groups and had emphasised the importance of holding “peaceful, rational and non-violent” protests.
Its July 1 march in 2003 saw an estimated 500,000 people take to the streets, forcing the government to shelve national security legislation being considered under Article 23 of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.
It organised several record-breaking demonstrations during the 2019 anti-government protests, including ones on June 9 and June 16 attended by an estimated 1 million and 2 million people, respectively. But police put the figures far lower, at 240,000 and 338,000, respectively.
At its height, the front counted more than 40 member groups, including the Democratic, Labour and Civic parties. But many groups began to jump ship in March after reports emerged police were investigating the front under the national security law, which bans acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
The front’s membership dwindled to just 10 groups, including the Social Workers’ General Union, the League of Social Democrats and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the organiser of the city’s annual June 4 candlelight vigil marking the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
The force has questioned the group over its finances and reasons for failing to register with the government under the Societies Ordinance. It has also demanded an explanation for the front’s role in a joint declaration submitted to the United Nations last December calling for an international investigation into alleged police brutality during the 2019 social unrest, a move pro-establishment figures said might have violated the security law.
Chan told police at the time the front would not cooperate with the investigation as the group argued it was a lawful entity under the Basic Law, which guaranteed the freedom of assembly, and that it also disagreed with the basis of the Societies Ordinance.