Hong Kong Labour Day protest called off after organizer's brief disappearance

Labour day protest, 2019. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP. With permission.

The original version of the report was written by Lea Mok and published in Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on April 26, 2023. The following edited version is published on Global Voices under a content partnership agreement with HKFP.

A planned Labour Day march in Hong Kong was scrapped after one of its organisers went missing for four hours on April 26, 2023. The event was set to take place May 1 to assert workers’ rights.

The rally application was filed earlier this month by activists Denny To and Joe Wong, former members of the now-defunct pro-democracy coalition, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU). They regularly released updates about their application status on the Facebook page, Hong Kong May Day.

On the morning of April 26, a statement on their Facebook page said that Joe Wong had disappeared from his home and had been unreachable since 7:30 am.

His family and friends suspect that Wong might have been taken away by the police for investigation or arrested. They have contacted lawyers to follow up.

Mounting pressure and stress

Four hours later, Denny To released a statement on the Facebook page announcing that Wong had “regained his freedom” at 11:30 am and suffered an emotional breakdown due to the pressure and stress:



Timothy Snyder指出:「威權主義的權力,大部份都是被慷慨賦予。在如此時代,個體往往預先考慮壓制性更強的政府想要甚麼,然後在沒有被要求的情況下預先服從。公民以這種方式適應威權,猶如教導權力可以做甚麼。」
Around 11:30 am this morning, Joe Wong regained his freedom. He was not arrested but suffered from an emotional breakdown. Obviously, he was under tremendous pressure. He told me that he had signed to withdraw the rally application. But restricted by Article 63 of the National Security Law, he could not reveal the details. Due to my experience, I can imagine what had happened to him. Wong has done everything to uphold the right to assembly; I completely understand and support his decision.
We anticipated this outcome when we decided to file the application […] Timothy Snyder wrote [in the Twenty Lesson to Fight against Tyranny], “Most of the power of authoritarianism is freely given. In times like these, individuals think ahead about what a more repressive government will want, and then offer themselves without being asked. A citizen who adapts in this way is teaching power what it can do.”
To a certain degree, we have accomplished this.[…]
The police confirmed on the same day that the request for a Labour Day march had been cancelled. A police spokesperson warned that anyone who gathered unlawfully on Hong Kong Island on May 1 could be charged with participating in an illegal assembly, which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.

Police probes and hijacking concerns

When asked to comment on To’s statement, Hong Kong’s Security Secretary Chris Tang did not clarify whether national security police had spoken to Wong, and asked the media to inquire with the organisers why their application for the march had been withdrawn. However, he said if the organisers considered themselves incapable of ensuring the safety of the public event, cancelling the march would be the responsible move.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, Hong Kong would see large-scale Labour Day demonstrations every year with participants from across the political spectrum promoting labour rights and protections.

On April 11, To and Wong filed an application to march from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to the Central Government Offices in Admiralty at 3 pm on May 1, with the maximum size of the rally set at 500.

However, the two organisers said on April 22 that they had been interrogated by the Hong Kong police about where they got their funding for the proposed demonstration and how they would guard against violent groups “hijacking” the march.

Hong Kong’s security chief later criticised Wong and To for making “irresponsible” comments that played down the “safety risks” of public rallies. The duo had urged the police not to “exaggerate” the risk of demonstrations being hijacked and that they believed the police had the capability of preventing violence from taking place in the rally.

Meanwhile, the city’s director of public prosecutions warned that “words are weapons” and that those who used their words to incite others to commit an offence would be punished.

Both Wong and To were among the ex-HKCTU members taken by national security police to assist in an investigation after the former head of the union coalition Elizabeth Tang was arrested on suspicion of foreign collusion last month.

The HKCTU announced its decision to disband, citing threats to members’ safety in September 2021. It was among the 50-odd civil society groups that folded following the implementation of the Beijing-imposed national security law (NSL).

While some small-scale public gatherings have recently been granted police approval, they have been subject to stringent measures. At Hong Kong’s first authorised protest against a government policy in about two years, demonstrators were made to wear numbered tags and carry their own cordon lines to define the crowd during the rally.

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution — bypassing the local legislature — following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.

The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

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