Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Hong Kong police have consistently banned public gatherings for ‘health’ reasons. In March 2023, the police ostensibly started granting permission for public gatherings again, but the reality is that there remain grossly unacceptable fetters on the freedom of assembly.
In March to April 2023, there were several planned rallies that were ultimately cancelled due to political pressure. The Hong Kong Women Workers’ Association had been due to hold a march on 5 March 2023 to mark International Womens’ Day, and had obtained the necessary approval from the police. However, the night before the protest, the organizers abruptly cancelled the protest without specifying reasons. Meanwhile, the police claimed that some “violent groups” had intended to attend the protest.
Even more shockingly, trade union leader Joe Wong disappeared for hours on 26 April 2023. Wong and fellow union leader Denny To had been planning a march for Labour Day on 1 May 2023. According to To, Wong had an emotional meltdown after meeting the police, then decided to withdraw their application for the march. Although Wong was not under arrest, he was prevented by the National Security Law (“NSL”) secrecy provisions from disclosing any details of his ordeal. Prior to this, both Wong and To had received coordinated harassing messages dissuading them from holding the march.
Since the end of Covid-19 restrictions in Hong Kong, only one protest has been held. However, the police imposed heavy-handed conditions: they ordered participants to wear a numbered tag indicating their participation, required banners to be submitted beforehand for the police’s approval, banned clothing in black or yellow colours, and required marchers to walk within a cordon. Since April 2023, the police have added ‘national security’ conditions to any approval of public meetings. These have extended even to fund-raising events and religious events.
Hong Kong’s legal framework of requiring prior permission from the police for protests has long been criticized for failing to give full effect to the right of freedom of assembly, including by the UN Human Rights Committee. With Covid-19 no longer a useful excuse, the Hong Kong government has shifted to “national security” as their go-to justification for restricting civil rights. Furthermore, the regime has employed onerous restrictions and thug-like tactics to intimidate civil society leaders.
(This story originally appeared in the March-April 2023 edition of our newsletter).