Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the most prominent of Hong Kong’s civil society groups that galvanised millions onto the streets in 2019, has disbanded after more than 20 years.
In a statement on Sunday, the CHRF said it could no longer operate amid “unprecedented” challenges posed by China’s crackdown on dissent in the semi-autonomous territory.
The group, which also organised an annual protest march marking Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997, is the largest to disband since Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law in June last year.
Its decision marks the latest blow to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and comes amid a police investigation for possible violations of the security legislation following a series of article in pro-Beijing media outlets that were critical of the group.
The CHRF, which is made up of a slew of member groups, said it held an annual meeting on Friday, where members decided to disband immediately.
“In the past year, the government has continued to use the epidemic as an excuse to reject demonstrations’ applications from CHRF and other groups,” it said in a statement.
“Member groups have been suppressed, and civil society has faced unprecedented severe challenges,” it added.
CHRF said its assets of 1.6 million Hong Kong dollars ($205,577) would be donated to other appropriate organisations.
The disbanding comes on the heels of a similar move by the Professional Teachers’ Union, the territory’s biggest teachers’ union, after it was criticised by Chinese state media and Hong Kong authorities, deepening concerns over a crackdown on the city’s independent voices.
“The Hong Kong authorities assault on human rights has ramped up with these attacks,” Joshua Rosenzweig, the head of Amnesty International’s China team, said in a statement. “Along with political parties, media outlets and unions, we sadly now must add NGOs to the list of those targeted simply for doing their legitimate work.”
Hong Kong’s democracy movement has crumbled since Beijing imposed the national security law, which bans acts deemed secession, subversion, “terrorism” and foreign collusion. It has been used to arrest more than 100 pro-democracy figures since it was first implemented, and also in the closure of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily.
The crackdown has virtually silenced opposition voices in the city – and drawn sanctions from the United States against Hong Kong and Chinese government officials.
Former leaders of the CHRF, Figo Chan and Jimmy Sham, are currently in jail on charges related to their activism.
“Although the Civil Human Rights Front no longer exists today, but we believe that different groups will continue to stick to their ideals, who will not forget their original intentions, and continue to prop up civil society!” the group said in a statement.
While authorities have said the law would not be applied retroactively, a recent interview with a Hong Kong police commissioner suggested that the group was being investigated for holding rallies in the past year.
Since the national security law was enacted, many unions, associations and political organisations have disbanded amid concerns that the law could be used to target them.