Tiananmen vigil convictions, Oscars controversy, new diaspora outlet
In this issue: The Hong Kong Media Bulletin covers the sentencing of three former organizers of a once-annual Tiananmen vigil in Hong Kong, controversy over a Hong Konger Oscars presenter, the opening of new local media outlets amid other closures, and the cancellation of an International Women’s Day march.
Image of the month: Irreverent Rapper
Malaysian rapper Namewee told Radio Free Asia in mid-March that he had been prevented from performing in Hong Kong as part of an upcoming world tour, speculating that “it may be due to [political] pressure, because I have had gigs there [in Hong Kong] before, and this time I'm suddenly not allowed.” Namewee and Chinese Australian singer Kimberley Chen had recorded a viral song mocking Beijing’s “fragility” to criticism in 2021 that received more than 67 million YouTube views; Namewee was subsequently banned from traveling to China, while Chen’s Weibo account was shut down. (Credit: Namewee on YouTube)
Highlights from this issue:
- New national security, sedition arrests for Tiananmen vigil organizers, labor activist
- Hong Kong–related controversy at the Oscars
- Hong Kong drops in international freedom assessments
- Restructuring of mainland office in Hong Kong could tighten Chinese Communist Party control
Rule of Law
- Three Tiananmen vigil group members convicted: On March 4, a Hong Kong court convicted Chow Hang-tung, Tang Ngok-kwan, and Tsui Hon-kwong for failing to comply with a national security police request for information. The three were former leaders of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China (HK Alliance), the main organizer of a candlelight vigil to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre held annually until 2019 in Hong Kong. The event had drawn tens of thousands of people each year, but authorities prohibited the vigil for several years under COVID-19 protocols, and HK Alliance disbanded in 2021. Prosecutors accused the group of being a “foreign agent” and sought to investigate its alleged ties to international democracy groups. HK Alliance’s former leaders including Chow have denied these claims. The defendants have been sentenced to four and a half months in prison. Chow faces an additional charge of subverting state power under the National Security Law (NSL) along with Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho, two other former leaders of the group.
- National security arrests of labor activist, woman who called for Hong Kong independence: Veteran labor activist Elizabeth Tang was arrested for suspected foreign collusion outside Stanley Prison on March 9 after visiting her husband in jail. Reporters from the state-owned Wen Wei Po were waiting outside the prison and videotaped Tang’s arrest. Tang had previously been accused by the state-owned Ta Kung Pao of receiving foreign funding while she was a board member of the labor advocacy group Asia Monitor Resource Center, and pro-Beijing supporters had called for her arrest. Another woman was arrested for secession allegations on the same day, reportedly because she had posted calls for Hong Kong’s independence online. The two arrests mark the first known national security detentions in ten months, and the first since John Lee became the city’s leader. Tang was released on bail on March 11. Her sister, Marilyn Tang, and lawyer, Frederick Ho, were arrested on the same day on suspicion of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. The two were detained while police were executing a search warrant in connection with Elizabeth Tang’s case.
- Coconuts HK shuts down: The independent news outlet Coconuts Hong Kong announced that it would stop regular updates to its news site on March 1, due to increasing journalistic and commercial challenges in Hong Kong. The digital outlet was well regarded for its extensive coverage of the 2019 prodemocracy protests, as well as in-depth profiles and other local news. Coconuts will continue to operate news sites covering Malaysia, Singapore, and other locations in Asia.
Academic and Artistic Freedom
- Hong Kong controversies surrounding the Oscars: An online petition organized by Hong Kong prodemocracy activist Tong Wai-hung demanding the removal of Donnie Yen as a presenter at the March 12 Academy Awards received 100,000 signatures in two weeks. Yen, a Hong Kong action star who had referred to 2019 protests as a “riot,” was also a delegate for Hong Kong to the annual Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference meeting earlier in March. After Michelle Yeoh’s historic win for the Best Actress award, she thanked her family in Hong Kong, where she had started her career. The secretary of the Hong Kong Culture, Sports, and Tourism Bureau congratulated Yeoh for her win, saying that it demonstrated the strength of Hong Kong actors and its film industry. Some Hong Kong activists argue instead that Yeoh’s win highlights Hong Kong’s unique historic and cultural role in the world, a position that is threatened as recent crackdowns have curtailed artistic freedom.
- Defendants rebut politicized prosecutions in court: In a speech made before being sentenced on national security charges on March 11, Chow Hang-tung categorically denied the prosecution’s claims that the HK Alliance was a foreign agent. Chow said that “so-called ‘national security’ would inevitably become a threat to the people’s right and security, nationally and even globally, as demonstrated by Tiananmen, by Xinjiang, by Ukraine, and indeed Hong Kong.” She added, “sentence us for insubordination if you must, but when the exercise of power is based on lies, being insubordinate is the only way to be human.” Her comments were later published by diaspora media and shared by overseas prodemocracy groups.
- New local media outlet: On February 20, journalist Bao Choy and colleagues launched a new media outlet called The Collective HK, citing the need to “seek truth” amid the declining space for press freedoms in Hong Kong. The Collective HK will focus on in-depth investigative journalism and be staffed by veteran journalists who previously worked for Apple Daily, Hong Kong 01, Cable TV, and Stand News. Bao, a former Radio Television Hong Kong producer, is also challenging her conviction for accessing car registration information while reporting on the 2019 Yuen Long mob attacks. She will appeal her case on May 3.
- Hong Kong drops in international freedom assessments, faces UN committee criticism: Hong Kong has suffered declines in several recent indices that measure rights and liberties. The territory has fallen to 148th place out of 180 in the 2022 edition of Reporters without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, 88th place out of 167 in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Global Democracy Index, and 123rd place out of 179 in the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Liberal Democracy Index. The territory earned only 42 out of 100 possible points in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2023 report, a 17-point decline since 2018. Hong Kong was also downgraded by CIVICUS Monitor from “repressed” to “closed,” the lowest category in the research group’s People Power under Attack 2022 report. On March 6, the UN Committee on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights urged the Hong Kong government to review the NSL’s impact on judicial independence and recommended that Hong Kong authorities “immediately provide all due process guarantees” to human rights defenders, civil society actors, and journalists.
What to Watch For
- Centralizing CCP control over Hong Kong: A proposal published after the end of the “Two Sessions” plenary meetings in Beijing called for a restructured Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office that would report directly to the CCP’s Central Committee, instead of the State Council. The new office, formally called the Hong Kong and Macao Work Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, could have increased supervisory responsibilities. The central government has made the end of 2023 the deadline to complete the restructuring process. At the same time, Hong Kong chief executive John Lee has reportedly asked the Chinese foreign ministry for more guidance and support related to the city’s external affairs during a meeting with Qin Gang, the new foreign minister in Beijing. Watch for details of the new supervisory structure and its responsibilities, as well as Beijing’s increasing intervention in Hong Kong politics and governance.
- Hong Kong prosecutors targeting activists’ family members, supporters: After the arrest of the sister of labor activist Elizabeth Tang (herself the wife of a political prisoner) and brother of prominent lawyer Albert Ho, watch for more instances of prosecutors pursuing legal action against activists’ relatives, attorneys, or supporters. On March 17, two men were arrested for possessing books from the Yangcun children’s series; the Hong Kong government has interpreted the books as a metaphor for the prodemocracy movement and a display of “seditious intent.” One legal observer noted that the arrests set a concerning precedent, and that “criminalizing mere possession puts seditious publications on the same level as drugs, weapons, explosives, counterfeit money, [and] child pornography.” The books’ publishers were sentenced to 19 months in prison last September. Watch for more sedition and national security charges aimed at a wider range of targets as Hong Kong prosecutors expand their efforts to silence dissent.
- Women’s march called off: The League of Social Democrats, one of the few prodemocracy political groups still operating in Hong Kong, has said that its members were questioned by police on March 3 and told not to join an authorized International Women’s Day march that was scheduled to take place two days later. The event would have been the first authorized rally to take place in Hong Kong in three years after the lifting of COVID-19 public health protocols, but no activists showed up to the march’s planned muster point. Instead, dozens of police officers were stationed at the starting point of the event. The event’s main organizer, the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association, issued a statement on March 8 saying it had been “forced to cancel” the event, but gave no further explanation. Watch for continuing restrictions on freedom of assembly after the lifting of Hong Kong’s coronavirus controls, including on social justice issues that have been less politically sensitive in the past.
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