The fast shrinking civil society space has left Hong Kong’s independent trade union movement facing an existential threat. Amid the rapidly changing political landscape, no one can accurately determine the future prospect of the city’s labour movement.
Trade unions are facing serious brain drain, like other civil society organisations, given the increasing political and legal risks to do their job in Hong Kong.
After the HKCTU’s disbandment in October 2021, nearly 20 union organisers were laid off. Less than half of them continue to work in labour organisations. Four have taken up jobs in other sectors, and at least five have fled Hong Kong. The rest chose to take a temporary break.
Those who opted to continue working in trade unions are experiencing intense psychological pressure. After a new wave of attacks against the HKCTU by the CCP’s propaganda apparatus in April 2022, one of them resigned, saying “just want to stay away from the storm”. For many people working in trade unions and other civil society organisations, the first thing to do every morning is to read the front-page stories of Wen Wei Po and Ta Kung Pao to see whether their organisations are on the CCP’s hit list. These stories are just the CCP covering up its own mistakes and looking for a scapegoat, one union organiser says, “we would just laugh it off in the past, but now there could be real consequences.”
Many union organisers suffer from mental health problems. HKCTU former chairperson Joe Wong revealed that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after the confederation’s dissolution. He said, “I suffered from recurrent, unwanted distressing memories of HKCTU’s disbandment, as well as insomnia, anxiety, overeating and self-blame … Knowing that there are still many people and organisations persisting, I tell myself I must pick myself up and not stay in the whirlpool of self-pity forever”.
Some other trade union staff have also reportedly suffered from depression, anxiety, insomnia, emptiness, frustration, tiredness, and feelings of guilt because of increasing political pressure, or having friends or colleagues jailed for civil society activities or fleeing amid the city’s worsening environments. This phenomenon is also common in other civil society organisations
Union organisers have also tried every effort to hide from Big Brother’s watchful eyes. For instance, organisers have to think twice before issuing a joint statement, which is regarded as the most moderate collective action. Other riskier activities such as organising, and empowerment work will most probably be avoided.
On 1 July 2021, the police asked the HKCTU to put away a banner that read “livelihood is politics, grassroots want justice”, accusing them of using an inciting slogan that amounted to “hatred towards the government”. One will not wonder if the popular slogan “collusion between the government and business” disappears.
In the past, unions could solicit donations from participants in annual pro-democracy public processions such as the Tiananmen Commemoration Vigil and 1 July Rally without permits, and the police usually did not intervene. However, the government has strengthened its law enforcement after the promulgation of the NSL. Four members of the League of Social Democrats, a pro-democracy political party, were recently convicted of unauthorised fundraising under the Summary Offences Ordinance.
Apart from amending the tax code for charitable organisations to include the national security requirement, the government also tightened the regulation on public fundraising activities. The government enacted a new permit system in early 2022, under which only charitable organisations with a credible track record are eligible to conduct face-to-face solicitation. Without proper checks and balances, these fundraising regulations could be weaponized to discipline civil society organisations.
Funding from foreign or international organisations have become taboo for the city’s civil society organisations. The reaction is not over-sensitive as the police can use receiving foreign fundings as a pretext to conduct covert surveillance on organisations and their members, and even raid their premises, seize documents and arrest and detain their leaders.
In the case of Hong Kong Alliance’s refusal to provide information the prosecution declined to disclose which foreign organisations or countries the Alliance was allegedly working for, citing public interest immunity. This will certainly open the door for the police to put a blank label of foreign agent to anybody without having evidence to back the claim up. A High Court judge refused to grant bail to Claudia Mo, a journalist-turned-politician who was arrested for taking part in the unofficial primaries, as she considered Mo’s WhatsApp chats with foreign correspondents an indication of a potential threat to national security.