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Hong Kong labels the host of Tiananmen vigil and other civic groups as ‘foreign agents’ to justify clampdown

Committee members from the HK Alliance in a press conference on September 6. Image via Stand News. Used with permission.

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China (HK Alliance), the host of annual vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, is being investigated under Hong Kong's national security law after the police labelled the group a ‘political organization’ and a ‘foreign agent’ on August 25, 2021.

The Alliance rejected the labels and refused to provide information that police officials requested. Citing article 43 of the national security law, the police accused the HK Alliance of being a ‘foreign agent’ and demanded the HK Alliance hand over information about its executive committee members, their identities, the group's income sources, activities and meetings since 2014.

The police specifically demanded details of activities and communications that involved the Canada-based Federation for a Democratic China, Taipei- and Hong Kong-based New School for Democracy, Hong Kong-based China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, Seoul-based Asia Democracy Network, Apple Daily via Mark Herman Simon, US-based National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and four other organizations funded by the NED.

The Hong Kong-based New School for Democracy and China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group also received similar requests from the police. Both organizations asked the police a deferment in response to the requests.

On September 8, the police arrested at least four HK Alliance committee members for refusing to turn over the information and failing to comply with the national security investigation request. The news outlet 852 Spirit reported on Twitter:

On September 7, the HK Alliance presented a letter to the national security authority, stressing that the group is not a foreign agent and that the police authority’s demand violates the principle of  ‘reasonable doubt‘, a legal standard of proof. On the same day, the HK Alliance also filed a judicial review over the police action. APF Hong Kong co-respondent Xinqi Su reported on Twitter:

Barrister Chow Hang Tung, the vice-chairperson of the Alliance, explained the rationale behind the group's decision more thoroughly in an article published by Stand News on September 3. She called the police’s request for the group’s internal documents a ‘fishing expedition‘ to construct stories and conspiracies against civic groups and to invoke fear by labelling the group as ‘foreign agents’, which has a vague and arbitrary definition.

According to National Security Law Article 43 implementation guidelines, the definition of ‘foreign agent’ refers to any person in Hong Kong who is directly or indirectly supervised, controlled, employed, subsidized or funded by a foreign government or foreign political organization. A political organization refers to any political party or organization that ‘pursues political ends’.

Chow expressed her concern that nearly any organization can be categorised as a ‘political organization’ if they are pursuing policy changes:

以維護工人權益為目標的工會算不算有政治目的?追求社會公義的教會呢?推動扶貧呢?教育呢?性別平權呢?法治呢?…會花費大量資源去推動政策改變的科技巨頭呢?商會呢?

What about labour unions that defend workers’ rights, will they be considered pursuing political ends? What about churches that pursue social justice and poverty alleviation? What about groups that work on education, gender equity and rule of law? … And those internet giants and business associations that spend a huge amount of resources to promote policy change?

Chow also pointed out that when a civic group is labelled as political, then it can easily fall into the category of ‘foreign agent’, while international organizations which are based in Hong Kong could easily fall into this legal trap:

那麼最受影響的大概就是各種國際組織的職員 — 只要機構被定性為「政治性組織」,受資者、受薪者的「代理人」身份就跑不掉。難怪國際組織似乎都準備要撤出香港了,它們一日在港運作,一日就有被迫交出整個組織隱私的風險。

Employees of international organizations would be affected the most. Once the organization is labelled as a ‘political organization’, those who are funded or employed by them would be treated as foreign agents. That’s why many international organizations are considering leaving Hong Kong. If they continue operating in Hong Kong, they could be forced to hand over their internal information.

Local organizations which receive funding support or have collaboration with overseas organizations would also be subjected to similar political harassment, Chow noted.

The Security Bureau and the Police Force, however, insisted that their power is in accordance with the principle of the rule of law and vowed to take action against the HK Alliance.

HK Alliance was founded in 1990, one year after the bloody crackdown of the Tiananmen student movement in 1989. It is a coalition of more than a dozen civic groups. The organization's mission is expressed in its name, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China.  Since its establishment, it had organized the annual candle night vigil on June 4 to commemorate those who died during the Tiananmen Massacre. In 2020 police banned the vigil citing concerns about the pandemic.

As pointed out by Chris Yeung, the chief editor of Hong Kong-based CitizenNews, the Alliance has always been a domestic patriotic movement to build a democratic and open China, the ‘foreign agent’ label is at odds with Hongkongers’ experience.

For many Hongkongers who had gone through the journey of the ill-fated pro-democracy movement spearheaded by the Alliance in the past three decades, the police’s accusation of the Alliance being a “foreign agent” has defied their knowledge, understanding and experience.

To say those tens of thousands of people who paid tributes to the June 4 victims on every June 4 as part of a plot by a “foreign agent” aimed to endanger national security is an insult to their conscience, to say the least.

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