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Hong Kong’s Largest Protest Group Disbands 

FILE - A general view of skyline buildings, in Hong Kong, China, July 13, 2021.
FILE - A general view of skyline buildings, in Hong Kong, China, July 13, 2021.

One of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy organizations has announced it will close immediately.

The Civil Human Rights Front, or CHRF, has been responsible for some of the largest street demonstrations in the city’s history, especially during the 2019 anti-government protests.

Since Beijing enacted a National Security Law for Hong Kong in June of last year, the government has repeatedly rejected applications from the CHRF to hold any rallies, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

Rumors of the group disbanding had been reported in local media for days, but on Sunday it was confirmed. A post on the group's page read that member groups have been “suppressed” and civil society has faced "serious challenges.”

The group added the decision to dissolve was “unanimous,” while thanking its supporters.

“The record of the marching of one million people and two million people, let the aspirations go through the whole city, let the world see Hong Kong, let the lights shine on the darkness, and let democracy and freedom plant in the hearts of people,” part of the announcement read.

The National Security Law has acted as a catalyst for a political crackdown in the city, with dozens of political figures arrested and jailed. The regulation — enacted to bring stability to the city following the 2019 demonstrations — has been widely criticized as a threat to Hong Kong’s once-vibrant free press.

Under the law, subversion and foreign collusion are prohibited.

Previous CHRF convener Jimmy Sham is one of 47 political figures charged in February with conspiracy to commit subversion under the law.

And in May, the front’s current convener, Figo Chan, was jailed for 18 months after pleading guilty to unauthorized assembly two years ago. The front admitted that no members were willing to step up to form a new secretariat after Chan was sent to jail.

Founded in 2002, the CHRF was an umbrella group affiliated with the majority of pro-democracy political groups in the city. Loud and proud, the group was a vital cog during the widespread pro-democracy rallies two years ago and was responsible for Hong Kong’s largest street protest ever. The organizers claimed nearly two million people – a quarter of Hong Kong’s population - opposed a now-withdrawn extradition bill on June 16, 2019. The city’s authorities claimed the turnout was a lot lower. The extradition measure called for some criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial.

Richard Tsoi, former secretary of civil society group the Hong Kong Alliance, told VOA the CHRF’s disbanding is a big blow to the pro-democracy movement.

“From 2002 until now, the Civil Human Rights Front acted as the umbrella organization for the civil society to organize Hong Kong people through collective actions to protect human rights and fight to democracy. Without this civil society forum, it would be hard for large-scale collective actions fighting for democracy in the near future. It will definitely have [a] negative impact to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement.”

The announcement comes after a Hong Kong police chief said the group may have previously violated the National Security Law, according to a report by the South China Morning Post.

Chow Hang-Tung is the vice president of the Hong Kong Alliance, a group which organizes an annual vigil to mark the anniversary of the 1989 crackdown on protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Chow told VOA in June that she believes the government is going after pro-democracy civil society groups.

“Apart from media, I think they want to target civil society organizations, NGO’s and all these political parties and groups. And it looks like ours. A lot of people saying the Civil Human Rights Front or us [Hong Kong Alliance] are the authorities’ next target.”

When asked for comment, a spokesman for Hong Kong’s Security Bureau responded to VOA via email.

"Any law enforcement actions taken by Hong Kong law enforcement agencies are based on evidence, strictly according to the law, for the acts of the persons or entities concerned, and have nothing to do with their political stance, background or occupation. It would be contrary to the rule of law to suggest that people or entities of certain sectors or professions could be above the law.”

Political analyst Joseph Cheng, formerly of Hong Kong but who is now in New Zealand, told VOA via email the closure of the CHRF is “a severe blow...”

“The closing is expected. Most of the leaders are detained or imprisoned. The majority of the constituent groups have left. There is no action program and no strategy ahead.”

“It means that the Chinese authorities are not ready to tolerate any large-scale protest activities, so there’s no freedom of assembly. Any organizer will be arrested and prosecuted,” he said.

Cheng praised the front, saying it was “respected and trusted” and that it served as a “broad spectrum” for all levels of political and social causes.

The front’s announcement following the recent disbanding of Hong Kong's largest teachers' union. The union did so last week after the government cut ties with it, accusing the group of spreading anti-Beijing and anti-government sentiment.

The Professional Teachers’ Union (PTU), a member of the CHRF, was founded in 1973 and was the city’s largest single-industry trade union. Up until its closure, it had 95,000 members.

The split came hours after Chinese state media called the union a “malignant tumor” and called out other pro-democracy groups in the city.

Ronson Chan, chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) told VOA that the pressure on Hong Kong's civil groups is mounting.

“I think that the pressure from the north is very obvious and very strong. It seems that no civil community will exist,” he said.

The HKJA was founded in 1968 and was another member with ties to the CHRF. Chan said the association remains defiant despite it reportedly being a target of authorities.

“We have done nothing special or nothing different after the National Security Law has passed. We are trying to stand as (long) as possible as we can. But if you say, can you guarantee to be safe, I’m sorry; I cannot make this promise," he added.