HONG KONG – Hong Kong police on Wednesday arrested four leaders of the group that organized the city's annual Tiananmen Square commemorations after they refused to cooperate in a national security investigation, the group said.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China had openly challenged the enforcement of a 14-month-old national security law, saying police were arbitrarily labeling pro-democracy organizations as foreign agents.
Chow Hang-tung, one of the four arrested and a vice-chair of the alliance, began a series of posts on Facebook shortly before 7 a.m., starting with two Facebook livestreams during which she says that some people have been ringing the doorbell. Chow, a lawyer, appears to be in her office, and muffled shouting could be heard in the background.
“The worst thing about being arrested is that I’ve not changed into a new set of clothes or brushed my teeth, will my breath overwhelm the national security police?” she wrote in one post.
The alliance is best known for organizing candlelight vigils in Hong Kong on the anniversary of China’s bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. The event was attended annually by massive crowds, and was the only large-scale public commemoration of the June 4 crackdown on Chinese soil.
Authorities have banned the vigils for the past two years, citing public health risks due to the pandemic, although critics believe the ban is part of an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the city following months of anti-government protests in 2019.
Alliance leaders delivered a letter to police Tuesday rejecting a request for details of the group’s operations and finances. Police earlier warned that failure to comply could result in a fine of up to 100,000 Hong Kong dollars ($12,900) and six months in jail.
Police on Wednesday confirmed that they arrested three men and one woman aged between 36 and 57 for failing to provide information in accordance with the national security law. Police did not identify them.
China's liaison office in Hong Kong issued a statement saying the arrests “demonstrated fairness and justice” because those who violate the law must be investigated.
Dozens of pro-democracy activists have been arrested since the implementation of the national security law, which outlaws secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign collusion.
Critics say the law completes the rolling back of freedoms not found on the mainland that Hong Kong was promised it could keep for 50 years after being handed over from Britain, such as freedom of speech and assembly.
Many pro-democracy organizations have disbanded due to safety concerns, such as the Civil Human Rights Front, known for organizing mass protests on July 1, the day in 1997 that the former British colony was handed over to China. Other groups that have disbanded include the Professional Teachers’ Union, a pro-democracy trade union for teachers.
The Hong Kong Alliance is one of the few outspoken pro-democracy groups in the city that has yet to officially announce its dissolution.
Chow had been scheduled to represent pro-democracy activist Gwyneth Ho in court for a bail hearing, and wrote on Facebook that it's regrettable she won't be able to attend. She also posted a photo of the waterfront view outside her office, saying she’s taking a look at it for the last time.
Chow also asked if anyone had any parting words for her. In less than three hours, supporters left more than 500 comments telling her to take care and thanking her for her work at the alliance.
The three others arrested are Leung Kam-wai, Chan To-wai and Tang Ngai-kwan, the group said. The three, together with Chow, are members of the alliance's standing committee.
The leaders said Tuesday that the police do not have a right to request information from the group because it is not a foreign agent and that authorities did not provide sufficient justification in their request.
“This association believes that the issuance of the letter has no legal basis, so we will not provide any information requested in the letter,” the committee said.
Police are investigating the alliance for allegedly working for foreign interests.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam said Tuesday that law enforcement agents may request information from suspected foreign agents or foreign political organizations in accordance with the law.
“If someone openly says that they will flout the law, they can’t call themselves a civic society group,” Lam said.
Several of the alliance’s leaders, including lawyer Albert Ho and activist Lee Cheuk-yan, are already behind bars after being convicted for their roles in unauthorized assemblies.
Members of the alliance were meant to meet on Sept. 25 to discuss and vote on whether or not to disband in a general meeting. The alliance said Wednesday that the meeting will proceed.