HONG KONG -- The organization behind the annual June 4 commemoration in Hong Kong of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown will lay off all staff by the end of the month, the group announced Saturday, adding that half of the standing committee members have resigned.
Mounting political pressure since the imposition of the national security law last June has compelled one of the most prominent pro-democracy organizations in the territory to virtually halt its activities.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China said in a statement that the political climate in Hong Kong in the past year has "sharply turned to the worse," and the political suppression against the organization has become "more and more intense and clear, especially in the last few months."
The alliance said that after discussions among standing committee members, they decided to dismiss all seven remaining staff by the end of July "to protect their safety."
Seven standing committee members recently resigned. The organization's highest decision-making body originally numbered 20, but it was slimmed down to 14, and now has been further cut back to seven, to meet "the political and legal risks that are becoming even grimmer."
The group, one of the most active pro-democracy organizations in Hong Kong, was established in May 1989 to support students and citizens demanding democracy and freedom in mainland China. Their protest in Tiananmen Square ended in a brutal suppression on June 4, 1989.
The group kept operating as a permanent institution, even after the handover of sovereignty from the U.K. to China in 1997, and continued to host the annual candlelight vigil at Victoria Park to commemorate those killed by the Chinese military in 1989. Such events are banned on the mainland.
However, since the national security law was imposed by Beijing on June 30 last year, the alliance has been facing heavy headwinds. Its chairman and vice chairman, Lee Cheuk-yan and Albert Ho Chun-yan, were sentenced to 20 and 18 months in prison, respectively, for their participation in an unauthorized assembly in October 2019, when the Chinese Communist Party celebrated 70 years in power.
Another vice chairperson, Chow Hang-tung, was arrested on June 30 and charged two days later with "inciting others to knowingly join an unauthorized assembly" related to the June 4 vigil this year, which was banned by the government due to the pandemic. Chow, a barrister, represented herself on Friday at a court hearing where she was denied bail.
A museum commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, which is also operated by the alliance, was closed on June 2, only four days after it reopened following a renovation and two days before the 32nd anniversary of the event. The facility was declared illegal by the territory's Food and Environmental Hygiene Department, citing a 1919 ordinance.
On top of all these, Luo Huining, Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong, said the territory's "genuine archenemy" is an organization that advocates "the end of one-party dictatorship," in a speech in mid-June celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Luo did not mention any names, but it was widely accepted that he was pointing a finger at the alliance.
Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, one of the seven standing committee members who resigned on Saturday, said after Luo's remarks that there was a risk of being outlawed in the near future. He added that it is "very likely, in the next months or even weeks, some sort of legal action could appear."
On Saturday, Tsoi said in an interview that the move to drastically cut back the organization, including his own resignation, was meant "to better position ourselves in view of the unforeseeable future." He said he will "continue to fight for the same belief and aspiration," despite his latest move, but did not elaborate.
Tsoi, along with Ho, Lee and over 20 other pro-democracy activists, are facing criminal charges for participating in an unauthorized assembly, namely last year's candlelight vigil which was banned by the authorities, citing the pandemic.
Mak Hoi-wah, the alliance's standing committee members who also resigned with Tsoi and five others, spoke on Friday about the fate of the group. When asked immediately after Chow's bail was rejected whether the alliance could survive, he said, "I don't think so. But anyway, we will try our best to keep us alive."
Speaking a few days before his imprisonment, Ho, the alliance's current vice chair and one of the founding members, said he was fully prepared for the group to be outlawed. "Actually, being banned is the best-case scenario," he said. "Worst case, all of our members would be arrested under the national security law."
Ho, a solicitor, believes the alliance's motto to "end one-party rule" does not constitute a crime. "We have been chanting the same slogan for 30 years. It advocates a peaceful way to push forward constitutional reform, not topple the government by force."
Despite the bleak future for Hong Kong's civil society under the sweeping security law, Ho said everyone should keep their hopes up and carry on with the democracy movement in a way that is "wise and careful."
"We might not be able to call for an open rebellion, but we can always hold onto our beliefs and speak the truth," he said.
Ho, along with Lee and Chow, who are in custody, are three of the remaining seven standing committee members of the alliance. Tsoi said they will meet to decide how to proceed. On how that will happen, the alliance said in its Saturday statement that one must "clench one's teeth and endure."
Additional reporting by Michelle Chan