International Women’s Day march in Hong Kong canceled amid police threats

Police had threatened key social activists with arrest if they participated
By Chen Zifei for RFA Mandarin and Jojo Man for RFA Cantonese
2023.03.07
International Women’s Day march in Hong Kong canceled amid police threats Police officers stand guard where a canceled march for women's rights was scheduled to take place in Hong Kong, Sunday, March 5, 2023.
Credit: Associated Press

A women's labor organization in Hong Kong canceled a march last weekend to mark International Women’s Day amid threats from police that they would arrest key activists.

The move comes despite the lifting of bans on public gatherings in Hong Kong and criticism by a United Nations rights expert about curbs on civil society and rights activism under a draconian security law.

"We have regretfully decided to cancel the Women's Day rally and demonstration that were scheduled for tomorrow," the Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association said in a brief statement on its Facebook account on Saturday, without giving a reason for the change. "Apologies for this!"

The League of Social Democrats, a pro-democracy political party led by veteran rights activists that would have taken part in the event, said police had claimed that "violent elements" had been planning to join the rally.

"We are sure the reasons behind the decision are patently obvious to the public," the group said in a statement on its Facebook page, adding: "Two days before the march, four LSD members were warned by the National Security Police that they must not join the march, or else they will be arrested."

League Chairperson Chan Po-ying said she and three other members were hauled in by national security police on March 3 and warned that they would be arrested if they took part in the event.

"They called last Friday ... and sent a car to take me to the police station," Chan told Radio Free Asia. "They got straight to the point and told us that we couldn't take part in the demonstration, without giving the reason."

ENG_CHN_HongKongRights_03072023.2.jpg
Chan Po-ying, chairperson of the League of Social Democrats, scuffles with police outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts ahead of the national security trial for pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, Feb. 6, 2023. Chan says she and three other members of the organization were warned they would be arrested if they took part in the women’s rights march. Credit: Associated Press

"They just said that we are well-known figures ... When I asked what would happen if I insisted on going, he told me very clearly that I would be arrested," she said. "He wouldn't answer my questions ... just told me not to go."

Chan said it's possible that the authorities are trying to avoid any public protest or dissent during the annual session of China's rubber-stamp parliament, the National People's Congress in Beijing.

‘Deeply infuriated’

The League of Social Democrats said on Facebook that it was "deeply infuriated that our joining of a legal protest was met with intimidation and obstruction by the National Security Police," it said. 

"Under such pressure, we decided not to attend. Yet we still hoped the march would go ahead, and the flags of gender equality and the rights of women from the grassroots would fly high on the streets."

It said Hong Kongers' freedom of expression and right to protest were now in "shreds."

Human rights experts at the United Nations seemed to agree, issuing a report that was highly critical of human rights protections in Hong Kong following a review of economic, social and cultural rights in Geneva last month.

"The Committee is concerned about reports of arrests, detentions and trials without due process of civil society actors, journalists, human rights defenders, lawyers working on human rights, disbarment of such lawyers, and others working to defend economic, social and cultural rights," the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights said in concluding comments following the review process.

ENG_CHN_HongKongRights_03072023.3.jpg
Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee [right] and Macau Chief Executive Ho Iat Seng attend the opening session of the National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sunday, March 5, 2023. Lee says the organizers of public events have a legal responsibility to ensure it doesn't break the law. Credit: AFP

It called for a review of a draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the ruling Chinese Communist Party from July 1, 2020, and for a national security hotline taking tip-offs from informers about breaches of the law – which criminalizes criticism of the authorities – to be abolished.

"The Committee ... concerned that the national security hotline is used extensively and might have detrimental effects on the work and expression of civil society, trade unions, teachers and other actors, including those mentioned above, working on human rights," it said.

‘Mobs in black’

Hong Kong Chief Executive and former police chief John Lee said the organizers of public events have a legal responsibility to ensure it doesn't break the law.

"Anyone who is not confident, is incompetent, or is worried about whether they can do this should not organize public activities, because they have to bear the legal responsibility," he warned.

"We have felt the pain caused to Hong Kong by mobs in black to Hong Kong," Lee said, in a reference to the 2019 protest movement that won broad popular support at the time for its calls for fully democratic elections and better official accountability.

Former pro-democracy lawmaker Ted Hui, who fled into exile amid the citywide crackdown that followed the 2019 protests, said police now appear unwilling to allow any kind of political activity in public.

"My analysis is that the police want to ban demonstrations, and they're not going to give them any opportunity," Hui said. "The police didn't reject the application for the demonstration, so next time they go to the United Nations or face [criticism from] Western countries, they can say they approved it, but that the group canceled it."

"Threatening to arrest people unless they refrain from taking part in a demonstration is very indicative [of the authorities' attitude] and a blatant violation of the Basic Law," he said.

Current affairs commentator Sang Pu said Beijing is continuing to manipulate civil society and political participation in Hong Kong, citing the recent cancellation of the Democratic Party's spring fundraiser by the venue, which said it had an issue with its gas supply.

"This is the Chinese Communist Party ... fully implementing the model it uses [to control] the Chinese people in Hong Kong," Sang said.

"It's very similar to the methods they used to suppress lawyers caught up in the July 9, 2015 crackdown [on rights attorneys, public interest law firms and rights activists]," he said.

He said claims by the Hong Kong government that the city is getting back to normal were misleading, and that normalcy can't happen with the national security law still in place.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster

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