HONG KONG -- The organizer of Hong Kong's annual commemoration of the Tiananmen Square crackdown will disband, the group said Saturday, after being under intense pressure from authorities since Beijing imposed its harsh national security law on the city.
The disbandment of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China is another blow to the pro-democracy movement in the former British colony that was once considered a bastion of freedoms in greater China. These freedoms -- including the right to assembly and free speech -- were supposed to be guaranteed until June 2047 following the handover of sovereignty back to the mainland in 1997 based on the "one country, two systems" formula, stipulated in the U.N.-registered international treaty Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.
In an extraordinary general meeting on Saturday, Alliance members voted 41 to 4 to dissolve, clearing the 75% threshold to be legally valid under Hong Kong law. The meeting was held behind closed doors in the June Fourth Museum, from which the police confiscated relics and dismantled exhibits during a raid earlier this month.
"It is sad to announce that the Alliance has come to an end," Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong, a longtime pro-democracy activist who hosted the meeting, told reporters. But he added that even without the organization that led the campaign for the past 32 years, "I do believe Hong Kong people, no matter in an individual capacity or other capacities, will continue to commemorate June 4 as before."
Tsoi introduced a letter sent from Chairman Lee Cheuk-yan, who is serving a 20-month prison sentence.
"No political power can take away people's memories and conscience, and the ideology of the Alliance is now in every Hong Kong person's heart," Lee said in his letter. "Where there are remains of fire, there are hope."
The Alliance was one of the most active and symbolic pro-democracy organizations in Hong Kong, initiated by Szeto Wah, the late iconic figure of the city's drive for democracy and freedoms. Its origin traces back to May 1989, as a movement supporting students and other citizens demanding democracy and freedom in mainland China.
Even after the brutal suppression of the protest in Tiananmen Square and nearby areas on June 4, 1989, the group kept operating as a permanent institution in Hong Kong and continued to host annual candlelight vigils at Victoria Park to commemorate those killed by the Chinese military in 1989.
Such events are completely banned in the mainland. Even a mention of the incident or referring to the date by numbers, such as "64" or "8964," are taboos and made unsearchable on Chinese-censored search engines. Chinese officials, when referring to the event in public, usually adopt the phrase the "political wind and waves in the late 1980s."
However, since the national security law was imposed, the Alliance has been under severe pressure to halt activities. Not only was Lee imprisoned, but his longtime partner in the movement and Alliance Vice Chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan was also sentenced to 18 months in prison. Both were jailed for participating in unauthorized assemblies, including in October 2019 when the Chinese Communist Party celebrated 70 years in power. Five other members were arrested this month for allegedly breaching the national security law.
The law, enacted last year, allows for terms of up to life in jail for anything deemed to be subversion, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Pressure intensified against the Alliance in June, led by Luo Huining, Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong. While not mentioning any names, Luo said in a speech celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party that Hong Kong's "archenemy" was an organization that advocates "the end of one-party dictatorship," which is one of the Alliance's founding principles.
The Alliance has come under investigation by the national security unit of the local police, suspected to be a "foreign or Taiwan agent" colluding with external forces.
Hong Kong Security Secretary Chris Tang Ping-keung told reporters Saturday, before the Alliance announced it would disband, that authorities will continue to pursue allegations and charges against the Alliance and its members whether or not the organization continues to exist. "They are two different things," he said.
When asked about the lack of evidence presented for its case against the Alliance, he refused to disclose any citing potential future lawsuits, but hinted that they will be "revealed one after another in court."
A spokesperson for the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office in Beijing issued a statement Saturday vowing to "firmly support" the territory's authorities on continued investigation and "get to the bottom" of the case against the Alliance.
The Alliance has now entered the dissolution process and two liquidators were appointed -- Tsoi and Elizabeth Tang Yin-ngor, Chairman Lee's wife. "We don't know [what] the next step by the government or the police [is going to be]," Tsoi said, but every single step will be transparent and open to the people of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong has witnessed a series of civic groups succumbing to pressure from a crackdown on dissent under the national security law in recent weeks.
On Sept. 19, the executive committee of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the city's largest pro-democracy labor group, resolved to disband. The union was established in 1990 by members of the Alliance, with Lau Chin-shek, another iconic figure in the city's early pro-democracy movement and a veteran labor activist, serving as its first chairman and Szeto Wah as its first general secretary.
The union called an extraordinary general meeting for Oct. 3 to vote whether to dissolve the organization or not.
Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union, the city's largest professional union and organized by Szeto Wah in 1973, officially vote to dissolve on Sept. 11. Civil Human Rights Front -- the main organizer of annual July 1 protest marches and rallies that brought over a million people to streets in 2019 -- announced is dissolution in mid-August.
"Uncle [Szeto] Wah was someone who understood when to advance and when to retreat under certain political environments," said Tsoi, who is one of the disciples of the late founder of the Alliance. "I believe if he was still alive, he would have come to a similar conclusion, after trying various ways and thinking of different methods, given this severe political environment."