COVID-19 set the precedent for blocking the march, then Beijing delivered the final blow.
(This article is first published in the Diplomat on 28 April 2023 )
The Hong Kong government has been busy telling the world that Hong Kong has recovered from COVID-19, and the city is back to normal. However, what they have not told the world is that the right to peaceful assembly was also lifted along with COVID-19 restrictions.
Even though the threat of pandemic has long gone, there is still no place for large-scale demonstrations in the “New Hong Kong” that has emerged since the implementation of the National Security Law in June 2020. Marches making political demands are of course not permitted, but nowadays, even demonstrations concerning social and economic issues are seen as threats by those in power.
This year’s May Day marks the third consecutive year that Hong Kong has not allowed Labor Day processions. COVID-19 set the precedent, then a top official from Beijing put the seal on, denying the right to peaceful assembly of 8 million Hong Kongers from all walks of life.
This month, top Beijing official Xia Baolong, the director of the Hong Kong and Macau Work Office, visited Hong Kong to kick off a celebration for “National Security Education Day.” During his visit, Xia made a high-profile statement about “protests not being the only way to express opinions.” He also warned of people who use livelihood issues to “hijack” protests and instigate social conflicts.
Soon after Xia set the tone, pro-Beijing trade unions followed and withdrew their May Day procession applications from the police.
Meanwhile, pro-democracy trade unionists planning to organize a May Day rally faced harassment and intimidation. The two former members of the now-defunct Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions filed an application, in their personal capacities, to hold the May Day rally in early April.
However, not only did the police intentionally delay the approval process, but senior government officials have also continued to make high-profile comments on their application. That includes threatening that the organizers would bear legal consequences for any incidents that might occur during the demonstration.
A few days before the parade, one of the parade organizers disappeared early in the morning without any reason. A few hours later, he suddenly agreed to withdraw his application for a May Day procession. Media reports said he was emotionally disturbed and declined to give further details due to the confidentiality provision of the National Security Law investigation. That comment indicated that the parade was called off under the pretext of national security.
This is a common tactic in the Chinese government’s playbook to suppress dissidents. In mainland China, incidents of dissidents being taken away, detained for questioning, forced to travel, or placed under house arrest by national security personnel are not uncommon during or prior to important dates. Since the implementation of the National Security Law in Hong Kong, this set of unspoken rules has gradually become the new normal in Hong Kong society.
At least two protests related to labor rights were forced to cancel this year. On the eve of International Women’s Day this year, a couple of social movement activists in Hong Kong were taken away by the national security police for questioning. They were warned not to participate in the Women’s Day demonstration. Subsequently, a women’s labor group that had successfully attained pre-approval from the police was forced to cancel their demonstration due to the enormous pressure.
Therefore, the May Day demonstration incident is just another rerun of the inscribed script of “self-cancellation” of demonstrations, which has already been written by authorities ahead of time.
Beijing has been tightening its grip on collective actions triggered by livelihood issues since the A4 (or White Paper) Movement last year. The movement, triggered by grievances against the harsh zero-COVID policy, successfully forced the Xi Jinping administration to make its biggest concession since taking office, and hence, greatly enhanced the authorities’ vigilance against collective actions arising from livelihood issues.
The suppression of labor rights demonstrations in Hong Kong illustrates that the Chinese government is further tightening its social control over Hong Kong. The suppression of political protests has expanded to suppression of people’s livelihood demands. Hong Kong people have now lost their right to speak about economic issues.