HONG KONG -- The Civil Human Rights Front, the main organizer of annual July 1 protest marches in Hong Kong, will disband, after the group came under intense pressure from the authorities including the threat of prosecution under the national security law enacted by China.
A CHRF statement issued on Sunday said that member groups in the front had agreed unanimously on Friday night to disband, according to their Facebook.
Absent from the meeting was the front's current convenor, Figo Chan, who was sentenced in May to 18 months in prison for participating in an unauthorized assembly in October 2019 when the Chinese Communist Party celebrated 70 years of rule.
Chan is one of many pro-democracy activists -- including former CHRF convenors Jimmy Sham, Au Nok-hin and Gary Fan -- to be taken into custody since the national security law was imposed by Beijing in June 2020.
The statement said the group “wished to continue in its original way to deal with the difficulties facing all of us,” but it was no longer possible to operate the organization as in the past with Chan imprisoned and no one able to run the secretariat.
The group has decided to place its 1.6 million Hong Kong dollars ($205,920) in assets in a trust, ahead of donation to an appropriate organization.
The CHRF is widely recognized for organizing a protest on July 1, 2003, that drew 500,000 people to the street and ultimately forced the Hong Kong government to scrap a proposal to enact a national security law based on Article 23 of the territory's Basic Law.
Since then, July 1 has become the day each year for Hong Kong's residents to express their grievances and opposition to controversial policies through peaceful marches. The date is a public holiday in Hong Kong marking the handover of sovereignty from the U.K. to China in 1997.
The group also played a crucial role during the anti-extradition protest in 2019, mobilizing over a million people to the street three times.
The topics of these marches were not always political. They included livelihood matters such as housing prices and the minimum wage.
But authorities barred the group from organizing a march last year, citing the COVID pandemic. The CHRF made no application for a march this year, as the group was essentially declared illegal by police in April as violating the Societies Ordinance, which was enacted in 1911 mainly to register triads gangs.
On the other hand, the police department said in a statement on Sunday afternoon that it will continue to investigate CHRF, despite its announcement to disband.
The pressure against the group has been coming directly from Police Commissioner Raymond Siu. Police are ready to "take action any time" against CHRF, Siu said in an interview published Friday by Ta Kung Pao, a Communist Party mouthpiece in the city.
Siu added that "a series of large-scale unauthorized protests in recent years could have possibly violated the national security law" and he said that his team was prepared to investigate the organization further.
The security law prescribes penalties of up to life imprisonment for those found guilty of separatism, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign powers. But it is not supposed to be retroactive, and CHRF has staged no protests since the law was implemented.
"Any organization that is harmful for the national security and the stability of Hong Kong society must not continue to operate," Tam Yiu-chung, the sole Hong Kong delegate to the National People's Congress Standing Committee, the top legislative body in China, told reporters Saturday evening when asked about the CHRF's rumored decision to dissolve.
CHRF's dissolution follows other pro-democracy groups that supported the movement in the territory over decades. The Hong Kong Professional Teachers' Union, the city's largest professional union, said Tuesday that it would disband too. The PTU was organized in 1973 by Szeto Wah, a late icon of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.
Szeto and the PTU were instrumental in creating the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China in May 1989. The alliance supported the pro-democracy movement that had erupted in China but which ended in a bloody crackdown at Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989.
The Alliance, which organized an annual candlelight vigil in Hong Kong to commemorate those victims, laid off all remaining staff last month and curtailed its activities, following intense pressure from Beijing and the local administration.
A 26-year-old elementary school English teacher who requested anonymity said on Friday that the PTU's sudden disbandment harmed many classroom teachers, as it was the only channel for them to seek protection when they encountered problems with school management or the education department, "including receiving necessary legal advice."
Toru Kurata, a professor at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, calls recent events in the city a "comprehensive repression against the pro-democracy camp by Beijing," moving at an "amazing speed." The veteran Hong Kong and China watcher equated the shift to an "overall revamping of the social system in a very wide sense, including implicit social rules and norms, that Hong Kong relied upon until now."
The pro-democracy organization closed its Sunday statement this way: “Although CHRF will no longer exist from this day, we believe other organizations will maintain their faith, not forget their original intentions and keep on supporting civil society.”
Additional reporting by Stella Wong