Solidarity protests in Hong Kong as mainland protesters oppose Beijing’s repressive coronavirus policy
In this issue: The Hong Kong Media Bulletin reviews Hong Kongers’ solidarity with mainland demonstrators, government pressure on Google over search results, and children’s books that led to sedition conviction hosted online.
Image of the month: Police harass protester
This image shows a 22-year-old mainland Chinese student being questioned by police in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park while taking part in the “White Paper Protests” on December 4, China’s Constitution Day. The student was repeatedly stopped and questioned by police, who recorded her personal information. Her solo protest came just two days after Hong Kong’s security minister said the mainland protests showed signs of a “color revolution.” Victoria Park was the location of a now-banned vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and is considered a sensitive location for protests. She told Voice of America (VOA) her courage came from demonstrators on the mainland, saying “it’s our duty” to protest. (Source: VOA)
Highlights from this issue:
- Hong Kongers demonstrate in solidarity as antilockdown protests sweep China
- Updates on criminal cases against Tiananmen vigil group
- Apple Daily executives plead guilty as Jimmy Lai’s trial set to open
- Children’s books that led to sedition convictions hosted online
- Government pressures Google over protest anthem search results
Solidarity protests in Hong Kong as mainlanders oppose Beijing’s repressive “Zero COVID” policy
This past month, protests swept across mainland China after at least 10 Uyghurs died in a fire in the Xinjiang city of Urumqi; rescue efforts were apparently hampered by COVID-19-related lockdown measures that are part of Chinese Communist Party chief Xi Jinping’s signature “Zero COVID” strategy. The fire triggered an outpouring of grief and anger, including chants against the central government and calls for Xi’s resignation. This sentiment is not new: Freedom House’s China Dissent Monitor has tracked nearly 80 COVID-19-related protests since June. As protests spread around the world, vigils were held in solidarity in Hong Kong. Within days of the protests in China, Beijing’s announced a loosening of pandemic restrictions. Read more about the protests and other updates below:
Freedom of expression
- Hong Kongers demonstrate in solidarity as antilockdown protests sweep China: On November 28, dozens of Hong Kongers gathered in Central to pay respects to the 10 people killed in the Urumqi apartment fire on November 24, an incident which sparked a series of protests across China; such scenes have been rare in Hong Kong since the 2020 introduction of the National Security Law (NSL). According to local media, approximately 30 police officers checked the documents of demonstrators, some of whom displayed blank pieces of white paper. Protesters in mainland China have done the same to symbolize government censorship, leading observers to call the movement the “White Paper Protests” or “A4 Revolution.” Hong Kongers had used blank paper in protests after the introduction of the NSL. Students, including those from mainland China, held vigils and protests at the University of Hong Kong, Chinese University, and the University of Science and Technology.
- Updates on criminal cases against Tiananmen vigil group: On December 6, a High Court judge denied bail for Lee Cheuk-yan, a leader of the now-defunct Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (HKASPDMC) who is facing NSL-related subversion charges. Albert Ho and Chow Hang-tung, vice chairs of the organization, face trials without a jury and up to ten years’ imprisonment along with Lee. Before its dissolution, the HKASPDMC had organized the annual June 4 vigils to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre. Also on December 6, Chow appeared at a separate hearing over accusations that she and two other members did not comply with an official data request; police accused the group of being an “agent of foreign forces” and demanded information in September 2021 about its membership, financial records, and activities.
- Conviction against 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund organizers: On November 25, the organizers of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which was created to help protesters in 2019, were convicted of failing to register under the Societies Ordinance—an administrative offense—and fined HK$4,000 ($512) each. Prominent prodemocracy figures, including 90-year-old Catholic cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, former Legislative Council member Cyd Ho Sau-lan, lawyer Margaret Ng Ngoi-yee, and singer Denise Ho Wan-see, were among the fund’s organizers. They remain without their passports as they also face an ongoing national security investigation over “collusion with foreign forces.”
- Apple Daily executives plead guilty as Jimmy Lai’s trial set to open: On November 22, six Apple Daily executives, including its former editor in chief, pled guilty to “conspiracy to collude with foreign forces” in return for lesser penalties and the dropping of sedition charges. The defendants had faced potential life sentences after the newspaper called for sanctions on Hong Kong officials in its pages. Several defendants agreed to help prosecutors secure a conviction against the outlet’s founder, Jimmy Lai, whose trial was initially set to begin in December. That trial was delayed until December 13 and then again to September 2023 after the government lost a court ruling that allowed Lai to hire a British lawyer to represent him. Chief Executive John Lee immediately called on the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress in Beijing to use the NSL to ban overseas lawyers. It would be a rare intervention to overturn a Hong Kong Court decision that went against the government, demonstrating the loss of rule of law.
- BBC ends Cantonese news program: On November 5, the British Broadcasting Corporation ended its Cantonese-language program Current Affairs Weekly《時事一周》, which had covered international, British, and Chinese news. The program was made available on YouTube and podcast platforms beginning in February 2021; Radio Television Hong Kong had aired the program before a state takeover ended its editorial independence. The program’s cancellation is a blow to independent Cantonese-language news content.
- Advocacy group’s website blocked: The US-based Hong Kong Democracy Council’s website was partially blocked in Hong Kong on October 26, after the group called on businesses to reconsider their activity in the territory. This is at least the ninth website blocked in Hong Kong under the NSL, by Freedom House’s count.
- FCCHK lease renewed, for now: The Foreign Correspondents Club, Hong Kong (FCCHK) has received a three-year lease renewal for its space from the Hong Kong government, starting in January 2023. The lease was set to expire after seven years amid concerns that the government would evict the FCCHK, which has hosted critical speakers in the past. The new lease includes a “standard” national security clause that allows for its immediate termination and may lead to self-censorship. The FCCHK ended its Human Rights Press Awards in April because of the NSL, leading to several members resigning in protest.
- Hong Kong diaspora groups stand with mainland protesters: A coalition of 52 diaspora organizations issued a statement supporting protesters in mainland China on November 29, stating that “cross-border solidarity is more vital than ever” in standing up to the Chinese Communist Party.
- London council rejects permit for new Chinese embassy: On December 2, the council of the London borough of Tower Hamlets rejected Beijing’s application to turn the former Royal Mint Court into the largest embassy in the United Kingdom. Borough residents wrote to oppose the plan; Hong Kong exile and local resident Simon Cheng, meanwhile, testified that the move would risk the “security, safety, and personal information” of Hong Kong, Uyghur, Tibetan, and Chinese refugees living in the area. The borough’s Strategic Development Committee must still consider the proposal.
- Children’s books that led to sedition convictions hosted online: In September, overseas Hong Kong activists published three children’s books in Chinese and English. The books, which depict cartoon sheep fighting wolves, led to five speech therapists receiving sedition convictions and 19-month prison terms that same month.
- US museum’s virtual exhibit displays translation of final Apple Daily issue: The First Amendment Museum in the US state of Maine is hosting a virtual exhibit of the final, June 24, 2021, issue of the prodemocracy Apple Daily newspaper, with full English translations of the articles.
What to Watch For
- Government pressures Google over protest anthem search results: The Hong Kong government said it was in talks with Google and its subsidiary YouTube to change the algorithms that display the 2019 protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong” as a top search result. The song has consequently been played several times at sporting events. Hong Kong does not have a separate anthem but uses the Chinese anthem, “March of the Volunteers.” Watch for changes to Google search results, some of which have already occurred. Other technology companies may also tweak their algorithms in response to government pressure or threats.
- Minister’s “color revolution” comments receive pushback: After Hong Kong’s security minister, Chris Tang, claimed the anticoronavirus protests in China showed signs of a “color revolution,” exile journalist Tsang Chi-ho pushed back in an opinion piece on December 2 for local Chinese-language outlet Ming Pao. The government issued a rebuke to the article that same day. In contrast, digital outlet HK01 deleted an article about the October “Bridge Man” protest in Beijing, six hours after it went online. Watch for a continued struggle within the local media scene, as Hong Kong outlets challenge self-censorship and editors and journalists navigate political redlines.
- Trust Project freezes Hong Kong operations: The Trust Project, an international consortium of news organizations that promotes transparency, accuracy, and integrity in news coverage, has suspended operations in the territory. The South China Morning Post is the only local newspaper to have participated, becoming first Asian newspaper to take part when it signed on in 2020. Watch to see if similar initiatives encounter headwinds in local engagement, as the NSL continues to warp Hong Kong’s media environment.
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