2021-09-15 07:20:20 Latest Threat to Hong Kong’s National Security: Chocolates in Prison

Latest Threat to Hong Kong’s National Security: Chocolates in Prison

HONG KONG (AP) — As Hong Kong’s crackdown on dissent has stepped up in recent months, the authorities have singled out a slew of acts and items that they claim pose a threat to national security. Protests in large numbers. Elections are held informally. Slogans were chanted.

Chocolate should be added to that list.

Chris Tang, the city’s top security official, said last week that some inmates in Hong Kong prisons were amassing chocolates and hair clips — items allowed in limited quantities — in order to “build power” and “solicit followers,” with the potential goal of undermining the government.

“Many people may find it strange — they just have a few more hair clips, one more piece of chocolate, what’s the problem?” he explained to reporters. “They make other people in jail feel their influence, and from there feel even more hatred for the Hong Kong and central governments, and from there endanger national security,” he continued.

Mr. Tang did not name the person he was accusing. His remarks elicited skepticism from several prisoners’ rights advocates, one of whom called them “incomprehensible.” However, his remarks coincided with a push by officials to isolate Hong Kong’s growing number of imprisoned pro-democracy activists from the groundswell of public support they have inspired.

More than 120 people have been arrested since Beijing imposed a broad national security law on Chinese territory in July 2020, with many denied bail before trial. Thousands more people have been arrested in connection with massive pro-democracy demonstrations in 2019.

As a result, a network of volunteers quickly formed to assist detainees. The 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, for example, provided legal services and bail funds. Another, Wallfare, offered pen pals and supplies to imprisoned protesters.

However, the 612 fund announced its dissolution in August, and the police announced this month that they were investigating the organization for potential national security violations. On Tuesday, Wallfare announced its own demise; a founder stated that the organization “really just couldn’t go on anymore.”

The pressure on the imprisoned protesters and their supporters reflects a broader, rapidly spreading chill on Hong Kong’s civil society. The government has used the vaguely worded security law to suggest that even sympathies for anti-government figures may be illegal. Several pro-democracy organizations, including churches and the city’s largest teachers’ union, have closed in recent months.

A judge sentenced 12 people, including several former lawmakers, on Wednesday for organizing or participating in a prohibited vigil last year for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Some received suspended sentences, while others were sentenced to six to ten months in prison.

The investigation has expanded to include prisoners and their supporters. The Hong Kong government has also fined several people for gathering near prisoner transport vans to show solidarity with detained activists as they are transported from courthouses to prisons. The crowds have been accused of breaking social distancing rules.

Mr. Tang, Hong Kong’s top security official, made the remarks after the city’s corrections department announced earlier this month that it had conducted a surprise search at a women’s prison. According to officials, six women were found with “prohibited articles” during the search. According to local media, one of the women was a prominent pro-democracy activist. Woo Ying-ming, the head of the corrections department, later confirmed aspects of the report in an interview with The South China Morning Post.

According to a department news release, prison officials had “received intelligence in recent days” that some inmates had “attempted to build up forces and incite others to participate.” It did not provide any additional information.

Later, Mr. Tang mentioned the hair clips and chocolates. At a separate news conference, he stated that those items were part of the tactics used by some prisoners and their allies to undermine national security. Others, he said, included the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund’s practice of sending letters to detained protesters encouraging them to “fight on.” Others, he added, used their identities — as clergy or local politicians, for example — as justifications for visiting prisoners and then assisting them in disseminating information.

Other officials have since echoed his remarks.

Mr. Woo told The South China Morning Post that guards had been assigned the task of producing daily reports on certain “influential figures” within the prison system. “This is how groups begin, just like terrorist groups recruit followers,” Mr. Woo said of the detainees’ support, adding that the influence was “subliminal.”

Shiu Ka-chun, a former opposition lawmaker and the founder of Wallfare, called Mr. Tang’s comments “incomprehensible,” claiming that his organization was doing “humanitarian work.” However, in a sign of the pressures on civil society, the comments quickly instilled skepticism. In an interview with local news outlets, Mr. Shiu also stated that the group would immediately discuss how to avoid any misunderstandings with the authorities.

Wallfare had announced its demise by Tuesday.

Following the announcement, some Hong Kong residents pledged to carry on the work of the group, albeit on a smaller scale.

Kenneth Cheung, a pro-democracy district councilor (a low-level elected official in charge of neighborhood work), said he visits detained protesters several times a month. He stated that he would continue to do so, and that after he posted about Wallfare’s closure on Facebook, several constituents approached him about donating crackers or beef jerky for him to bring to prison.

However, he admitted that he would most likely be limited to taking small gifts to individuals, whereas Wallfare had been able to use its platform to advocate for better prison conditions. He made it clear that he had no plans to establish any kind of replacement organization.

“Having an organization and a platform is, of course, the best,” he said. “But we all know that right now, under government pressure, they have no way of continuing.”

Mr. Shiu stated at a press conference about Wallfare’s decision that he had not been personally contacted by government officials, but that “something happened” on Sunday that prompted the group to vote unanimously to shut down.

“Under comprehensive governance, every group in civil society will face a variety of pressures,” Mr. Shiu said, referring to the term used by the central government to describe its rule over Hong Kong. “It’s possible that simply existing is a crime. Perhaps being here today is a crime.”

When asked how those detained would receive assistance in the future, he paused, then choked up. “Tears are truly our most universal language,” he explained.

Tiffany May and Joy Dong contributed to this report.

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Latest Threat to Hong Kong’s National Security: Chocolates in Prison