HONG KONG — Three Hong Kong activists from a now-defunct group that organized annual vigils commemorating China’s 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters were convicted on Saturday for failing to provide authorities with information on the group in accordance with a national-security law.
Chow Hang-tung, Tang Ngok-kwan and Tsui Hon-kwong were arrested in 2021 during a crackdown on the city’s pro-democracy movement following massive protests more than three years ago. They were leaders of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China before it disbanded under the shadow of the Beijing-imposed law.
The alliance was best known for organizing candlelight vigils in Hong Kong on the anniversary of the Chinese military’s crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests. Critics say its shutdown has shown that freedoms that were promised when Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 are eroding.
Before the group voted to disband, police had sought details about its operations and finances in connection with alleged links to democracy groups overseas in August 2021, accusing it of being a foreign agent.
But the group refused to cooperate, arguing that police were arbitrarily labeling pro-democracy organizations as foreign agents. It added that police did not have a right to ask for its information because it was not a foreign agent and the authorities did not provide sufficient justification.
Under the security law’s implementation rules, the police chief can request a range of information from a foreign agent. Failure to comply with the request could result in six months in jail and a fine of 100,000 Hong Kong dollars ($12,740) if convicted.
On Saturday, principal magistrate Peter Law ruled that the defendants were obliged to answer the notice served to them, which he called “sound and legal,” and their non-compliance was unjustified.
The alliance had been actively operating with various entities and people abroad, Law said, so it was necessary to explore their dealings and connections to determine their affiliation and ultimate purpose.
“Such requirement for information was nothing like a broad-brush fishing exercise but rather was constrained in terms of periods of time and nature,” he said. “The police had taken an abstemious and self-restrained approach.”
During previous legal proceedings, the court ordered a partial redaction of some information after prosecutors argued that a full disclosure of information would jeopardize an ongoing probe into national security cases.
The undisclosed details in a redacted police report submitted to the court include the names of groups that were alleged to have links with the alliance.
“Leaking of secret information — such as identities, strategies and interim investigation results of others — would definitely seriously jeopardize the ongoing investigation,” Law said on Saturday.
The annual vigil organized by the alliance was the only large-scale public commemoration of the June 4 crackdown on Chinese soil and was attended by massive crowds until authorities banned it in 2020, citing anti-pandemic measures.
Chow — along with two other former alliance leaders, Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho — were charged with inciting subversion of state power under the security law in 2021. The alliance itself was charged with subversion.
The national security law criminalizes secession, subversion and collusion with foreign forces to intervene in the city’s affairs, as well as terrorism. Apart from the activists, pro-democracy publisher Jimmy Lai is also facing collusion charges under the law, which has already jailed or silenced many dissidents.
In Beijing, Wang Chao — spokesperson for the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature — hailed the enactment of the law in 2020 as an important milestone in the practice of the “one country, two systems” governing principle.
The principle promises the former British colony the right to retain its own political, social and financial institutions for 50 years after the 1997 handover.
“Hong Kong has had a major turn from chaos to stability,” he said.