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Space for peaceful protests is vanishing in Hong Kong as pro-democracy coalition is disbanded

Civil Human Rights Front announced its disbandment on August 15, 2021

The following post is an English translation of a Chinese report published on Hong Kong-based CitizenNews on August 14, 2021. It is republished by Kodao through Global Voices under a content partnership agreement. 

Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), a coalition of pro-democracy political and citizen groups for the mobilisation of large-scale rallies, announced its disbandment on August 15, 2021. 

Many anticipated the group would eventually dissolve when the Hong Kong Police Force started investigating the group in April 2021, citing national security concerns

Throughout its tenure, the umbrella organization frequently hosted major mass rallies in Hong Kong, including the 2019 anti-China extradition protests. Since its establishment in 2002, the Hong Kong police had collaborated with the group to ensure rallies were orderly, safe and peaceful. Yet, upon the enactment of the national security law (NSL) on June 30, 2020, the Police Force banned the CHRF’s 2020 July 1 pro-democracy rally for the first time since the annual protests began in 2002, citing COVID-19 and security concerns. In May 2021 the coalition was flagged as an illegal entity.

CHRF has represented the rational, peaceful and moderate front of Hong Kong’s civil society since its establishment. For 18 years, it served as a platform for civic groups to communicate and build consensus on common agendas for positive social change. Though no protests have been organised since the NSL was implemented, police vowed to investigate key figures of the group for potential national security infractions. 

The Civil Human Rights Front’s origins

The Civil Human Rights Front was established in 2002 by Rose Wu, a veteran feminist and a faculty member at CUHK’s School of Theology. The group hoped to provide a loose platform for civil groups to regularly discuss human rights and social justice. Eventually, more than 30 groups had joined the coalition, which was officially launched on September 13, 2002. 

At that time, the most pressing issue in Hong Kong was the legislation of Basic Law Article 23 — a local version of the national security law. The CHRF hosted its first rally in December 2002 against the proposed law and unexpectedly drew 60,000 demonstrators — ten times more than anticipated. 

On July 1, 2003, the CHRF organized its second rally against local national security legislation. Around 500,000 people turned out, making it the second-largest protest in the city since the mass rally against China’s crackdown on the Tiananmen student movement in 1989. The rally forced the Hong Kong government to halt the legislation. 

Since then, July 1 rallies have become an annual event for citizens to voice out their discontent. As the rally host, the CHRF would decide on the annual agenda while other organisations and protesters would use the occasion to voice their demands.

Between 2005 and 2013, the agenda of the annual rally covered a wide range of issues including universal suffrage, minimum wage, environmental concern, property bubbles, the introduction of a national education curriculum and more. The turnout ranged from 21,000 to 430,000 depending on the political climate at the time.

In 2014, 510,000 people joined a rally demanding genuine universal suffrage of the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive. After the rally, two student activist groups, Hong Kong Federation of Student Unions and Scholarism staged a rehearsal of ‘Occupy Central Protests‘, a massive civil disobedience campaign that advocates for democratic election reform with no pre-screening for candidates according to international standards of universal suffrage. During the sit-in, 511 protesters were arrested.

Since then, many started to question the effectiveness of the annual ‘ritualistic’ peaceful rallies organized by the CHRF and called for more radical forms of protest and civil disobedience. 

CHRF: The rational and peaceful front of Hong Kong protests

Civil engagement ebbed after the Occupy Central sit-in protests in 2014 failed to bring democratic changes in the city. As a large number of activists were arrested for participating in the peaceful sit-in, some protesters became sceptical of orderly, symbolic acts of protest in favour of more disruptive resistance. The number of participants in demonstrations dropped dramatically until February 2019 when the government introduced an amendment to the Extradition Bill or The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019.

In response to the government decision to bypass the Bill Committee and submit the controversial bill directly to the Legislative Council for second reading on June 12, 2019, the CHRF organized the anti-China extradition rally on June 9. The government decided to proceed with the reading despite the 1 million demonstrators who had turned out against the bill. After the rally, some protesters clashed with police outside the Legislative Council. 

On June 12, the CHRF hosted an authorized peaceful assembly at Lung Wui Road. On the same day, some protesters surrounded the Legislature and a few clashed with the riot police. The police force ended up firing tear gas, bean bag rounds and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters, including thousands of peaceful protesters at Lung Wui Road. At the end of the day, the police justified its actions by labelling the protest a riot, a crime that could lead to a maximum of 10 years imprisonment. The CHRF called for another rally on June 16. 

Although the government announced on June 15 they would suspend the amendment to the extradition law, the police operation on June 12 had turned the single-issue protests into a city-wide political movement with five demands: the withdrawal of the fugitive law amendment, holding the police accountable for the violent clampdown on June 12, the release of the arrested protesters, changing the ‘riot’ label of the June 12 protests, and stepping down of the Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Over 2 million people turned out for the June 16 protest, which made headlines worldwide.

After the 2019 July 1 rally, which ended when a few dozen radical activists stormed the Legislative Council complex, the anti-China extradition movement evolved into a series of decentralised protests hosted by different activist groups. Very often, these protests ended in clashes between riot police and protesters. 

In response to the violent clashes between riot police and demonstrators and between pro-Bejing and pro-democracy protesters such as the Yuen Long subway attack incident on July 21, the CHRF hosted a ‘be water assembly’ at Victoria Park on August 18, 2019, condemning the collusion between the police and the pro-Beijing mobs, more than 1,700,000 joined the protest. 

The Hong Kong government and the pro-establishment groups condemned the CHRF and the pro-democracy political parties for not cutting ties with the radical protesters. 

Since March 2021, when Singapore-based Chinese newspaper Lianhe Zaobao reported that the Hong Kong police had launched an investigation on the CHRF, many coalition members have cut ties with the group. One month later in April 2020, the Hong Kong police accused the CHRF of violating the Societies Ordinance for failing to register as a legal entity.  The last convenor of CHRF Figo Chan was sentenced to jail for participating in an illegal assembly on October 1, 2019. The umbrella group was left with no leadership. 

The final disbandment of the CHRF was announced on August 15 through a statement

CHRF originally hoped to continue to face the challenge with everyone in the existing ways, but convenor Figo Chan is already in jail because of several cases, and the secretariat can no longer maintain its operations. With no members participating in the next secretariat, we can only begrudgingly announce our disbandment.

Press freedom impeded in Hong Kong as police limits definition of recognized media representatives

Freelance and student journalists could be arrested when reporting from protest sites in proposed new law
Screen capture from a video taken by reporter Leung Pak-kin from online media Rice Post.

The following post was written by Kelly Ho and originally published on Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) on September  23, 2020. This edited version is published under a content partnership with Hong Kong Free Press. It has also been published by Global Voices that Kodao is now republishing under a content-sharing agreement.

Hong Kong police announced a controversial decision on September 22 to redefine “media representatives” by limiting them to government-registered and “internationally recognised” agencies, newspapers, magazines, radio and television stations. As a result, press cards issued by local journalist groups would no longer be accepted as valid accreditation.

Under the new policy, freelance journalists, journalists from student press outlets, documentary filmmakers, journalists who work for local media organizations which have not registered under the Government News and Media Information System (GNMIS) and journalists who work for foreign media outlets which are not “internationally recognised and reputable” will not be recognized as media representatives. This also implies that the police could arrest them when they are reporting from protest sites.

The police force said the proposed change of the Police General Orders, a set of guidelines for Hong Kong police officers on law enforcement, would help facilitate frontline policing and reporting. It would also help them identify members of the press and bar “self-proclaimed” journalists from protest sites.

The new guidelines drew widespread criticism from journalists, as eight press unions and associations slammed the move as “seriously impeding press freedom” in the city.

They asked the police to scrap what they consider a de facto accreditation system, stressing that:

Police unilaterally made such a major amendment without discussion and consultations, destroying a relationship that was built over many years.

Journalism schools from seven local universities also issued a joint statement expressing their “gravest reservations” over the new policy presented by the police force:

In our view, the police have every right to take action against anyone engaging in illegal activities; however, this proposed policy is in effect restricting the freedom of reporting. We are concerned that the new policy would amount to giving clear instructions to officers to disperse non-mainstream journalists who have done no wrong and are only exercising their right to gather information.

Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club said the new scheme would deliver a “serious blow” to freelance journalists and student reporters, who had provided “compelling reporting” during last year’s large-scale unrest.

Eight key protest moments captured by freelance and student journalists

HKFP has examined key moments from the city’s year-long pro-democracy protests that were captured by freelancers and student media.

Many of the clips gained viral traction and were shared freely with local, as well as international media. Student and freelance reporters often faced great personal risk in capturing iconic protest moments, yet received little reward, lacked protection from large news outlets and bore the brunt of police-protester actions. Here are some of the main key moments of the protests covered by such media.

Warning: some of the videos include graphic scenes of violence.

September 6: riot police tackle a teenage girl

The HKUST Radio News Reporting Team captured footage of riot police pinning a young girl to the ground after she tried to flee during a demonstration in Mong Kok on September 6.

Although the teenager was not arrested, the police reaction sparked outrage from children’s rights groups who demanded the force apologise. Police later defended the response, saying officers had used the “minimum necessary force” to subdue the girl.

August 31: police pepper spray pregnant woman

The online website NineTeen Media filmed a pregnant woman who appeared to have been affected by police pepper spray at a demonstration in Mong Kok on August 31. Independent outlet Studio Incendo, which shares its images under a Creative Commons license, also shot widely-shared photographs of the incident.

July 1: protester stabs police officer

The Hong Kong Baptist University Students’ Union Editorial Board captured the moment when a protester stabbed a police officer in the arm on July 1, the 23rd anniversary of the city’s handover to China. Thousands of Hongkongers had defied a police ban to march between Causeway Bay and Wan Chai in protest of the Beijing-enacted national security law.

November 11, 2019: police fire three live rounds in Sai Wan Ho, striking a protester

Cupid Producer documented a police officer firing three live rounds at two protesters at close range in Sai Wan Ho on November 11, 2019, during a general strike action across the city. One of the rounds hit a protester, who had a kidney and half of his liver removed as a result.

October 1, 2019: police shoot an 18-year-old with live round at close range

Last year, on October 1, the campus TV of the University of Hong Kong recorded graphic footage of police shooting an 18-year-old protester with a live round in Tsuen Wan. The teenager – Tsang Chi-kin – who appeared at the time to have a rod in his hand, was shot in his left lung. He was left in a critical condition and underwent surgery to remove the bullet, which was three centimetres from his heart.

October 1, 2019: National Day turmoil in a 360° view

HKFP freelancer Thomas Broader shot a 360-degree video on October 1, 2019, presenting an all-immersive view of the citywide turmoil. Hong Kong saw clouds of tear gas, petrol bombs and vandalism that day as protesters “mourned” the Chinese National Day.

August 31, 2019: police storm Prince Edward Station

Reporter Leung Pak-kin from online media Rice Post shot a video inside Prince Edward MTR station on August 31 last year, which showed police beating people with batons and deploying pepper spray while making arrests. Journalists and medics were expelled from the station, according to local media, leading to unverified rumours of civilian deaths during the incident.

July 27, 2019: police beat protesters inside Yuen Long MTR station

An HKFP freelancer, who does not wish to be named, captured chaotic scenes inside the Yuen Long MTR station on July 27, 2019. In the video, Special Tactical Squad officers were seen beating crowds as protesters set off fire extinguishers. There appears to be blood on the floor.

Group condemns another Chinese ‘hit-and-run’ incident on PHL waters; calls for search and rescue for 14 missing fishers

A fishers’ group is up in arms over reports of another collision incident involving a Chinese vessel that led to the disappearance of 14 Filipino fishermen off the coast of Occidental Mindoro Sunday, June 28.

“We strongly condemn this collision incident in our territorial waters involving our Filipino fishermen and a Chinese vessel. We call on the authorities to expedite the search and rescue operations for the missing fishing crew and, as much as possible, must be returned to their families safe,” the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (PAMALAKAYA) in a statement this morning said.

The group also demanded that the Hong Kong-registered cargo ship Vina Moon be held accountable for endangering the lives of the missing fisher folk.

Other reports however said the name of the Chinese ship is MV Vienna Wood.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said the 14 crew members of the local fishing boat Liberty Cinco, including two employees of the Irma Fishing Corporation, owners of the vessel, remain missing.  

The PCG also reported that the capsized Liberty Cinco, with a badly-damaged hull, was found off the coast of Cape Calavite in Mindoro Island but the crew are nowhere to be found.

It was not indicated whether the Vienna Wood/Vina Moon has reported the incident to the coast guard after it happened.

The Chinese crew professed ignorance of the incident when questioned by authorities, the PCG reportedly said in interviews by the media.

PCG however said the Chinese vessel also sustained damages on its prow, indicating it rammed the capsized local fishing boat.

In a statement, PAMALAKAYA National Chairperson Fernando Hicap likened the recent incident to the ramming and sinking of the F/B Gem-Ver1 by a Chinese vessel that endangered the lives of 22 fishermen in Recto Bank last year.

Hicap said it is the very same month last year that another Chinese vessel almost killed 22 Filipino fisher folk in a hit-and-run incident at Recto Bank, an underwater reef formation in the West Philippine Sea that is internationally-recognized as part of the exclusive economic territory of the Philippines.

Hicap lamented that the 22 fishermen who hail from San Jose, Occidental Mindoro have yet to be fully compensated by the Chinese vessel Yuemaobinyu 42212 that hit and abandoned them last year.

“One year of no justice and yet another tragic incident happened,” PAMALAKAYA said.

“We do not want a repeat of the injustice against our fisher folk. The owner and captain of the the Chinese ship must be held into account for ramming them and for their violation of the rights of our Filipino fisher folk in our own seas,” the group added. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Stranded OFWs urge lifting of HK travel ban; quarantined Pinoy seafarer’s daughter seeks medical repatriation for dad

Hong Kong domestic worker Eleveneth Baldero said she fears losing her job due to the travel ban imposed by the Manila government to the Chinese territory. Contractual workers like her may be fired if unable to return back to their employers on time as Philippine authorities have prevented Filipino citizens from travelling to Hong Kong and the rest of China.

“My contract is set to expire on 6 March that is why I’m really worried. Financially, I am running out of money to sustain my stay here in the Philippines. This is why I really need to return back to Hong Kong,” Eleveneth said in a press conference held at the Migrante International office in Quezon City last Monday, 17 February.

Eleveneth and other migrant workers demanded that the Rodrigo Duterte government lift the corona virus disease-19 (COVID-19) travel ban it imposed last February 2 and grant exemption to returning migrant workers, students and residents. 

Rowena Lee was unable to hold back her tears thinking about her recuperating mother in Hong Kong recently discharged from a hospital from another ailment. “This is a very big problem for us since my 75-year old mother in Hong Kong still needs medical attention and I really want to return so I can be with her. She is all by herself,” Rowena said.

Rowena took a short leave from work 28 February and is being prevented to return to Hong Kong by the travel ban. Aside from worrying for her mother and her job, she is also anxious about bills and house rents that she needs to pay. “Our family needs us. It will be very hard for us if we get forced by the situation to borrow money just to extend our stay here. I am pleading to the government to lift the travel ban so we can return to our normal lives. We are struggling because we are not earning anything here,” she said.

Tess Aquino is a permanent Hong Kong resident and had been for 23 years. Aquino went home to the Philippines last 15 January for her annual leave and was set to fly back on 9 February. She heard about the travel ban on last 2 February and received an email notice from Philippine Airlines informing her about her flight’s cancellation. “I have attempted all possible ways to return back to Hong Kong. I was told by my company to try travelling to Hong Kong via Vietnam. Travel agencies refused to book my flight because of the travel ban and I was told that I will only be wasting my money because even if I make it to Vietnam, they would still not allow us to get to our final destination which is Hong Kong. For now, my company allowed me to temporarily work as home-based but for how long? I don’t think our employers will wait for us forever if this continues,” she narrated

Former Filipino Migrant Workers’ Union (FMWU-Hong Kong) chairperson Feliza Guy Benitez explained that overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) in Hong Kong are usually given two-week annual leaves, an opportunity they take to visit the Philippines. The leaves are often non-extendible.  “If OFWs get terminated because they exceeded the 14-day leave, it will be hard for us to get back again to zero just to process all the application papers and the government won’t even pay for it,” Benitez said.

(Migrante Hong Kong photo)

Urgent appeal

Benitez said 131 Hong Kong-based Filipino organizations already issued their Urgent Appeal Joint Statement calling on the Duterte government to lift the ban.  The statement estimated that there are around 25,000 overseas Filipino workers who have been unable to leave the country because of the ban. “We all feel that the travel ban which was imposed without a warning or consultation is unjustified and oppressive. It was decided upon without a comprehensive understanding of how it would affect us, and was not even in line with health protocols set by the World Health Organization. The abruptness by which it was carried out also belied the concern for Filipinos abroad that President Rodrigo Duterte has expressed in numerous speeches and interviews,” the statement reads.

The statement added that an additional 1,000 OFWs are affected by the travel ban consisting of Filipino residents, students and small business proprietors in Hong Kong. “Health-wise, we also feel safer in Hong Kong where we are assured of excellent public health care at little or no cost to us. Some of us who have private medical insurance get the added bonus of being treated at private hospitals, also for free,” the statement said.

Feliza Guy Benitez, another Hong Kong OFW, decried the state of public health services in the Philippines. “People who need medical attention are safer in Hong Kong because of their advanced healthcare system. It will be harder for OFWs to settle back here in the Philippines because of high unemployment, low wages and contractualization,” Feliza Guy said.

The group also complained about the “miniscule amount of compensation offered by the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA) to qualified OFWs. “Each stranded OFW was offered Php10,000 compensation from the OWWA Fund, an amount that would not even pay for the expenses they had to bear after being stranded at the airport. Moreover, non-OFWs were given no help at all, when many of them don’t even have houses in the Philippines, and have to pay for food and lodging while waiting for the ban to be lifted. They are also in danger of suffering even more if they lose their jobs, as they pay high rents and other expenses such as school fees for their children in Hong Kong,” the appeal said.

“When I went to OWWA, I was told that I am not covered because they are only processing compensation up to 16 February. I really do not know whether I will still receive any compensation from the government,” Eleveneth said.

Surrendering right to government assistance

The OFWs also object to proposals that they sign a waiver freeing the government from any responsibility should they decide to proceed with their travel to Hong Kong. Tess said the waiver is “problematic because it is going to free the government from its responsibility towards us OFWs.”

Migrante Philippines rights and welfare coordinator Lao Castillo added, “The waiver requirement is tantamount to obliging OFWs to surrender their right to receive government assistance. It is a dangerous precedent especially in times of conflict or crisis situations.”

Pinoy seafarer in trouble

Meanwhile, Victoria Lavado, daughter of the Filipino seafarer on the cruise ship Diamond fears her father and around 500 other Filipino seafarers who were placed under quarantine in Japan after 10 foreign ship crews which include 1 Filipino contracted COVID-19. “It took a long time before they received safety masks and they are still forced to work as if it is business as usual. There is no separate quarantine area for those who are already infected and they can still mix with other crews despite the risks. This is why I was really worried when I found out from reports that there are already 30 to 60 crews who are getting infected with COVID-19 daily,” Victoria said.

“We really want the Duterte government to work on medical repatriation for my father and for the other Filipino seafarers. The government must find a way to provide quality medical services for them here in the Philippines which is unfortunately notorious for its poor public healthcare and medical facilities,” Victoria added.

The group United Filipinos (UNIFIL)-Migrante Hong Kong’s said that the OFWs predicament may only be blamed on the government’s labor export policy that has been in place for so long. “If there are only adequate employment opportunities here in the Philippines, there could have been no need for us to leave the country. The government is now telling us that we cannot return back to our work. This is almost akin to taking away our lives.,” UNIFIL said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Cagayanos want blacksand mining ‘disguised as dredging’ stopped

By ACE ALEGRE
www.nordis.net

BAGUIO CITY — Cagayanos asked President Rodrigo Duterte’s help in stopping dredging activities at the mouth of Cagayan River they said is “disguised” magnetite mining.

The Cagayan Province Provincial Board approved last August 7 a resolution asking the president to suspend the dredging operations at the mouth of the Cagayan River in Aparri town.

This came after the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) confirmed that it did not issue any dredging permit to the private firm involved in the dredging.

Pacific Offshore Exploration Inc.  (POEI), a firm owned by a former Isabela town mayor, has been dredging the country’s biggest river system for months.

The company reportedly ships the dredged materials to a reclamation project in Hong Kong and may earn about $50 million monthly if it sells the sand at current local prices, according to the resolution.

A cubic meter of sand in Cagayan is being sold at P160 to P180.

The exportation of black sand to Hong Kong was met with protests from locals.

Provincial Board member and resolution author Mila Lauigan said the deal with the dredgers has to be investigated.

“That is why we are appealing to the President to immediately suspend the dredging operations and inquire whether the company has complied with all the requirements before it proceeds,” Lauigan said.

According to the provincial legislator, “the contractor is only extracting black sand and leaves waste (non-mineral sand) material back into the river.”

It is reason why environmentalists and locals are raising heaven and hell [while] Gov. Manuel Mamba had been defending POEI’s operations amidst the environmental mess it has been causing, she said.

Mamba’s camp had been defending the dredging operation they said is meant to prepare for the reopening the Port of Aparri.

Mamba said the port’s reopening would improve economic and trade relations between Cagayan province and China as well as neighboring Asian countries.

Mamba, who entered into a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with Pacific Offshore Exploration Inc. (POEI) under the authority of a resolution passed by the Cagayan Provincial Board last January, insists there is only dredging activities in the area and not magnetite (black sand) mining.

The provincial board has yet to be shown a copy of the memorandum of agreement between Mamba and POEI.

Mamba’s camp said there is no economic value to the exportation and the dredging activities help clear the river of heavy silt for free.

Engr. Mario Ancheta of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources’ Mines and Geosciences Bureau agreed with the governor that there is no mining but dredging operations that should be sanctioned by the DPWH.

“There is sand extraction, but it is not mining but dredging,” Ancheta said.

The Cagayan Export Zone Authority (CEZA), meanwhile, had been silent on the controversial dredging and “exporting” of the dredged sand to HK.

Immigration officials and the maritime police in Cagayan are also silent on the presence of foreign workers on the sand barges regularly approaching the shores of Aparri town. # (With additional reports from Raymund B. Villanueva) nordis.net / Photo from Gising Cagayan Facebook Page