Upon the lifting of the pandemic-related public gathering restriction on March 1, 2023, a women’s rights group had planned a rally on March 5, the Sunday ahead of International Women’s Day. Yet, the organizer, the Hong Kong Women's Worker Association, called off the rally on the eve of the event on March 4, without providing any reason.
A protest group revealed that the city's police threatened to arrest its members while the police told the press that the reason behind the cancellation was “a balance of pros and cons,” claiming that the authority discovered that “violent groups” would appear at the rally.
For decades, it had been customary for local women’s rights groups to organize an annual solidary rally around International Women’s Day in early March. Thanks to pandemic-related public gathering restrictions, public assemblies and rallies were forbidden for almost three years.
In a press conference on March 2, the organizer said the police authority had given a “nod” for the rally, and later the same day, the organization officially received a “letter of no objection.” The women’s group began preparing the rally in early February, and it took over a month for the police to issue an official letter.
The group anticipated around 100 persons would join the rally to promote labor rights and gender equality.
However, waves of political pressure emerged ahead of the event.
Soon after the group announced its plan, pro-Beijing politicians started citing the necessity to uphold the Anti-Mask Law, which was enacted in October 2019 under the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, banning face coverings at both lawful and unlawful assemblies. Ronny Tong, a member of the government’s Executive Council, stressed that wearing a face mask to mitigate COVID-19 could not be used as an excuse to cover one’s face during rallies and that police officers had the authority to arrest those who wore masks in the rally.
During the 2019 anti-China extradition protests, many protesters wore masks to protect themselves from being identified or arrested for attending unlawful assemblies.
After the Women’s Worker Association called off the rally, a pro-democracy protest group, the League of Socialist Democrats, revealed in a statement that four of its members had received verbal threats from national security police officers on March 3. They were told that if they showed up at the rally, they would be arrested. In the statement, the group stressed:
Freedom of speech is under threat, and the right to protest is being trampled. This is the reality here. Regardless of its rhetoric in telling good stories about Hong Kong, the ruling elites could not cover up such a reality.
At the same time, the police said as the organizer called off the rally, the “no object letter” would be voided. The authority warned that any individual who gathered in the rally spot could be arrested for participating in an unlawful assembly.
Despite the call-off, more than 30 police officers were stationed around the Southorn Playground on Sunday. Laura Westbrook, a correspondent from South China Morning Post, tweeted:
Police stationed inside & outside Southern playground MTR & walking the perimeter at 11am – when the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association planned to hold a demonstration, ahead of International Women’s Day, but abruptly cancelled it last night. pic.twitter.com/PCXbBXOgOV
— Laura Westbrook (@LauraWestbrook) March 5, 2023
According to the Public Order Ordinance, if three or more people assemble together and behave in a “disorderly, intimidating, insulting or provocative manner” that causes “a reasonable fear” or “a breach of peace,” this could be defined as an unlawful assembly. The maximum penalty is five years imprisonment.
Prior to the enactment of the National Security Law (NSL) on June 30, 2020, the police authorities had restricted their power in enforcing the Public Order Ordinance as the colonial law, which was enacted to crackdown the 1967 riots in Hong Kong, has considered in violation of the Bill of Rights (1991). For decades, civic groups only need to go through a notification procedure for hosting protests and rallies.
In fact, the previous women's day gathering in the city took place in March 2020, just months before the enactment of NSL.
In the past three years, many activists were jailed for violating the Public Order Ordinance. For example, in 2020, a dozen activists received six- to ten-month jail sentences for organizing and participating in the annual candlelight vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre at Victoria Park on June 4, 2020. The vigil was held annually from 1990 until 2020 when the police banned the public gathering citing COVID-19 restrictions.
The police authorities did issue a dozen of “no objection letters” for public gatherings since the enactment of NSL, including Lunar New Year celebrations, school charity walks, church fundraising, and more.
Had it not been canceled, the women’s rights rally would have been the first public civil society gathering since the enactment of the National Security Law.