HONG KONG — As Hong Kong’s crackdown on dissent has intensified over the previous yr, the authorities have singled out myriad acts and objects that they are saying might threaten nationwide safety. Mass protests. Informal elections. Chanting slogans.
Add to that listing: chocolate.
The metropolis’s high safety official, Chris Tang, mentioned final week that some people in Hong Kong prisons have been accumulating sweets and hair clips — objects allowed in restricted numbers — to “build power” and “solicit followers,” with the attainable objective of undermining the federal government.
“Many people may find it strange — they just have a few more hair clips, one more piece of chocolate, what’s the problem?” he informed reporters. Then he continued, “They make other people in jail feel their influence, and from there feel even more hate for the Hong Kong and central governments, and from there endanger national security.”
Mr. Tang didn’t specify whom he was accusing. His feedback prompted incredulity from a number of prisoners’ rights advocates, certainly one of whom referred to as them “incomprehensible.” But his remarks got here amid a push by officers to chop off Hong Kong’s rising numbers of imprisoned pro-democracy activists from the groundswell of public assist they’ve impressed.
Since Beijing imposed a wide-ranging nationwide safety legislation on the Chinese territory in July 2020, greater than 120 people have been arrested, many denied bail earlier than trial. Thousands extra have been arrested in connection to mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.
In response, a community of volunteers shortly emerged to assist detainees. One group, the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, offered authorized providers and bail funds. Another, Wallfare, supplied jailed protesters pen friends and provides.
But in August, the 612 fund introduced that it was disbanding, and this month, the police introduced that they have been investigating the group for potential nationwide safety violations. On Tuesday, Wallfare mentioned that it, too, was shutting down; a founder mentioned the group “really just couldn’t go on anymore.”
The stress on the jailed protesters and their supporters is emblematic of a broader, quickly spreading chill on Hong Kong’s civil society. The authorities has wielded the vaguely worded safety legislation to counsel that even expressions of sympathy for antigovernment figures could also be unlawful. Dozens of pro-democracy teams, together with church buildings and the town’s largest lecturers’ union, have shut down in latest months.
On Wednesday, a decide sentenced 12 people, together with a number of former lawmakers, for organizing or taking part in a banned vigil final yr for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square bloodbath. Some received suspended sentences, and others six to 10 months in jail.
The scrutiny has prolonged to prisoners and their supporters. The Hong Kong authorities have additionally fined a number of people for gathering close to prisoner transport vans to indicate assist to detained activists as they’re shuttled from courthouses to prisons. The crowds have been accused of violating social distancing restrictions.
The feedback by Mr. Tang, Hong Kong’s high safety official, got here after the town’s corrections division introduced this month that it had performed a shock search at a girls’s jail. The search discovered that six girls had “prohibited articles,” officers mentioned. Local information media reported that one of many girls was a outstanding pro-democracy activist. Aspects of the report have been later confirmed by Woo Ying-ming, the top of the corrections division, in an interview with The South China Morning Post.
Prison officers had “received intelligence in recent days” that some people there had “attempted to build up forces and incited others to participate,” according to a division information launch. It didn’t launch additional info.
Mr. Tang later talked about the hair clips and sweets. At an unrelated information convention, he mentioned these objects have been a part of the techniques some prisoners and their allies have been utilizing to undermine nationwide safety. Others, he mentioned, included the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund’s apply of sending letters to detained protesters, urging them to “continue fighting.” Still others, he added, used their identities — as clergy or native politicians, for instance — as excuses to go to prisoners after which assist them disseminate info.
His feedback have since been echoed by different officers.
In his interview with The South China Morning Post, Mr. Woo mentioned guards had been given the duty of manufacturing day by day reports on sure “influential figures” throughout the jail system. “This is how groups begin, like terrorist groups recruiting followers,” Mr. Woo mentioned of the assist among the detainees have, including that the affect was “subliminal.”
Shiu Ka-chun, a former opposition lawmaker and Wallfare’s founder, referred to as Mr. Tang’s feedback “incomprehensible,” saying that his group was performing “humanitarian work.” But in an indication of the pressures going through civil society, the feedback additionally shortly impressed wariness. Mr. Shiu, in an interview with native information media, additionally mentioned the group would instantly focus on forestall any misunderstandings with the authorities.
By Tuesday, Wallfare had introduced its disbanding.
After the announcement, some Hong Kong residents pledged to proceed the group’s work, albeit on a smaller scale.
Kenneth Cheung, a pro-democracy district councilor — a low-level elected official who oversees neighborhood work — mentioned he had visited detained protesters a number of occasions a month. He mentioned he would proceed to take action, including that after he posted about Wallfare’s closure on Facebook, a number of constituents had reached out about donating crackers or beef jerky for him to take to jail.
But he acknowledged that he would most definitely be restricted to taking small presents to people, whereas Wallfare had been ready to make use of its platform to advocate higher circumstances for prisoner. He emphasised that he had no plans to begin a alternative group of any type.
“Of course having an organization and a platform is the best,” he mentioned. “But right now, we all know, under the government’s pressure, they have no way to keep going.”
At a information convention about Wallfare’s choice, Mr. Shiu mentioned that he had not been personally contacted by authorities officers, however that “something had happened” on Sunday that led the group to vote unanimously to close down.
“Under comprehensive governance, every group in civil society will bear a lot of different pressures,” Mr. Shiu mentioned, referring to the central authorities’s time period for its rule over Hong Kong. “Even existing may be a crime. Maybe standing here today is a crime.”
When requested how these detained would get assist sooner or later, he paused, then choked up. “Tears are really our most universal language,” he mentioned.
Tiffany May and Joy Dong contributed reporting.