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HK activists face increased surveillance

Clampdown on perceived dissent in Hong Kong appears to extend well beyond traditional opposition parties
Police patrol near a carnival at Victoria Park to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China, in Hong Kong on July 1.

Police patrol near a carnival at Victoria Park to celebrate the 26th anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China, in Hong Kong on July 1. (Photo: AFP)

Published: September 29, 2023 04:54 AM GMT
Updated: September 29, 2023 05:04 AM GMT

Hong Kong unionist Joe Wong had applied for permission to hold a Labour Day march, but cancelled his request to police in an abrupt U-turn after he briefly went missing.

He cannot reveal what led to the change of heart, a result of a confidentiality clause in a sweeping national security law Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 to quell dissent.

Three years after the law's enactment, activists say Hong Kong's police have stepped up surveillance -- pre-emptively discouraging rallies before applications are filed, paying home visits in the lead-up to days seen as politically sensitive and summoning organisers for warning chats.

"It's impossible to organise any large-scale rally and march now," fellow labour unionist Denny To told AFP. "It's certainly a process of taming."

The clampdown on perceived dissent in Hong Kong appears to extend well beyond traditional opposition parties like the League of Social Democrats.

It has hit groups like a women's association and even a Cantonese language preservation association whose founder's home was searched last month, with police demanding the removal of a fictional essay depicting a dystopian future Hong Kong.

"It appears the striking range has expanded," said Chan Po-ying, leader of the League of Social Democrats.

For some, police visits have become regular occurrences, according to seven activists who spoke with AFP.

But details of police conversations cannot be shared due to the law's confidentiality clause.

"The impacts are invisible," said To.

In response to queries about new tactics deployed by the national security department, Hong Kong police told AFP they "take appropriate actions... according to the laws".

'For our own good' 

Semi-autonomous Hong Kong -- which enjoys greater freedoms compared to mainland China -- once had a vibrant civil society.

It bolstered 2019's massive and at times violent pro-democracy protest movement.

Since Beijing's crackdown on dissent, which saw thousands arrested, Hong Kong's streets have been clear of marchers.

Even events like International Women's Day marches have been dropped.

The Hong Kong Women Workers' Association had planned its first post-pandemic rally for March 8, receiving permission after applying for it. But three days later, they withdrew their application.

The association is not allowed to say what led to the withdrawal due to the national security law's confidentiality clause.

Police told reporters safety could not be guaranteed at the march after they saw comments online suggesting the event be "hijacked".

Four members of the League of Social Democrats were warned not to join the march "for our own good", Chan told a radio programme at the time.

One activist told AFP police warned him -- as well as a dozen of his acquaintances -- against participating.

"Some received phone calls, some had their homes visited by officers carrying a search warrant hinting that if they did not cooperate, they would face more forceful actions," he said.

Hong Kong leader John Lee has said groups with no "capability... should not organise such public events."

'High-risk days' 

Activists have also experienced heightened police attention in the lead-up to two key dates in recent years.

One is June 4, the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre in Beijing.

The other is July 1, the day Britain handed its former colony back to China 26 years ago.

"I asked why they would come to me... and they said those days were 'high-risk days'," one activist whose group is now disbanded told AFP on condition of anonymity.

Prior to the crackdown, massive crowds of people from all walks of life would gather on these two dates every year -- an indication of the relative freedom the city enjoyed.

But the annual June 4 vigils were forced to stop, while July 1 this year saw no sign of protests.

"They want you to do nothing," the activist said, referring to the police.

Police have also made appointments to "stay in touch", said two activists, with interactions ranging from a casual greeting to requests for rally plans.

All the activists AFP spoke to said they were told to attend their meetings with police alone.

The check-ins have taken a heavy mental toll, they said.

They described a fear of being followed, as well as worries that meeting friends could unintentionally implicate them too.

One said he removed his doorbell as the ringing startled him -- a holdover from police visits -- and he had nightmares after each meeting.

"I can't live out my complete self," another activist told AFP.

Despite the stress, holding fast under pressure is crucial, said Chan, adding "you can't just sit back".

One activist said she was focusing on "preserving strength for the future".

"I will try my best not to think about whether something is illegal or sensitive," she told AFP.

"Instead, we should try to argue that this is our right, and it's lawful -- until they tell us it's not."

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