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

HONG KONG — As Hong Kong’s crackdown on dissent has intensified over the previous yr, the authorities have singled out myriad acts and gadgets that they are saying may threaten nationwide safety. Mass protests. Informal elections. Chanting slogans.

Add to that listing: chocolate.

The metropolis’s high safety official, Chris Tang, stated final week that some individuals in Hong Kong prisons have been accumulating goodies and hair clips — gadgets allowed in restricted numbers — to “build power” and “solicit followers,” with the potential aim of undermining the federal 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 informed reporters. Then he continued, “They make other people in jail feel their influence, and from there feel even more hate for the Hong Kong and central governments, and from there endanger national security.”

Mr. Tang didn’t specify whom he was accusing. His feedback prompted incredulity from a number of prisoners’ rights advocates, one among whom referred to as them “incomprehensible.” But his remarks got here amid a push by officers to lower off Hong Kong’s rising numbers of imprisoned pro-democracy activists from the groundswell of public assist they’ve impressed.

A photograph offered by the Hong Kong authorities displaying Chris Tang, town’s safety secretary, being sworn in this yr by Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief government. The two have vowed to crush violent dissent.Credit…Hong Kong Information Services Department, by way of Reuters

Since Beijing imposed a wide-ranging nationwide safety regulation on the Chinese territory in July 2020, greater than 120 individuals have been arrested, many denied bail earlier than trial. Thousands extra have been arrested in connection to mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.

In response, a community of volunteers rapidly emerged to assist detainees. One group, the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, offered authorized companies and bail funds. Another, Wallfare, provided jailed protesters pen buddies and provides.

But in August, the 612 fund introduced that it was disbanding, and this month, the police introduced that they have been investigating the group for potential nationwide safety violations. On Tuesday, Wallfare stated that it, too, was shutting down; a founder stated the group “really just couldn’t go on anymore.”

The strain on the jailed protesters and their supporters is emblematic of a broader, quickly spreading chill on Hong Kong’s civil society. The authorities has wielded the vaguely worded safety regulation to counsel that even expressions of sympathy for antigovernment figures could also be unlawful. Dozens of pro-democracy teams, together with church buildings and town’s largest academics’ union, have shut down in current months.

On Wednesday, a decide sentenced 12 individuals, together with a number of former lawmakers, for organizing or taking part in a banned vigil final yr for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square bloodbath. Some obtained suspended sentences, and others six to 10 months in jail.

The scrutiny has prolonged to prisoners and their supporters. The Hong Kong authorities have additionally fined a number of individuals for gathering close to prisoner transport vans to present assist to detained activists as they’re shuttled from courthouses to prisons. The crowds have been accused of violating social distancing restrictions.

Pro-democracy supporters exterior a courthouse in Hong Kong in March.Credit…Lam Yik Fei for The New York Times

The feedback by Mr. Tang, Hong Kong’s high safety official, got here after town’s corrections division introduced this month that it had performed a shock search at a ladies’s jail. The search discovered that six ladies had “prohibited articles,” officers stated. Local information media reported that one of many ladies was a distinguished pro-democracy activist. Aspects of the report have been later confirmed by Woo Ying-ming, the pinnacle of the corrections division, in an interview with The South China Morning Post.

Prison officers had “received intelligence in recent days” that some individuals there had “attempted to build up forces and incited others to participate,” in accordance to a division information launch. It didn’t launch additional data.

Mr. Tang later talked about the hair clips and goodies. At an unrelated information convention, he stated these gadgets have been a part of the ways some prisoners and their allies have been utilizing to undermine nationwide safety. Others, he stated, included the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund’s follow of sending letters to detained protesters, urging them to “continue fighting.” Still others, he added, used their identities — as clergy or native politicians, for instance — as excuses to go to prisoners after which assist them disseminate data.

His feedback have since been echoed by different officers.

In his interview with The South China Morning Post, Mr. Woo stated guards had been given the duty of manufacturing every day stories on sure “influential figures” inside the jail system. “This is how groups begin, like terrorist groups recruiting followers,” Mr. Woo stated of the assist a few of the detainees have, including that the affect was “subliminal.”

Shiu Ka-chun, a former opposition lawmaker and Wallfare’s founder, referred to as Mr. Tang’s feedback “incomprehensible,” saying that his group was performing “humanitarian work.” But in an indication of the pressures dealing with civil society, the feedback additionally rapidly impressed wariness. Mr. Shiu, in an interview with native information media, additionally stated the group would instantly focus on how to forestall any misunderstandings with the authorities.

Shiu Ka-chun, founding father of Wallfare, visiting younger prisoners on the Pik Uk Correctional Institution in Hong Kong in May.Credit…Jessie Pang/Reuters

By Tuesday, Wallfare had introduced its disbanding.

After the announcement, some Hong Kong residents pledged to proceed the group’s work, albeit on a smaller scale.

Kenneth Cheung, a pro-democracy district councilor — a low-level elected official who oversees neighborhood work — stated he had visited detained protesters a number of occasions a month. He stated he would proceed to accomplish that, including that after he posted about Wallfare’s closure on Facebook, a number of constituents had reached out about donating crackers or beef jerky for him to take to jail.

But he acknowledged that he would almost definitely be restricted to taking small items to people, whereas Wallfare had been in a position to use its platform to advocate higher circumstances for prisoner. He emphasised that he had no plans to begin a substitute group of any sort.

“Of course having an organization and a platform is the best,” he stated. “But right now, we all know, under the government’s pressure, they have no way to keep going.”

At a information convention about Wallfare’s choice, Mr. Shiu stated that he had not been personally contacted by authorities officers, however that “something had happened” on Sunday that led the group to vote unanimously to shut down.

“Under comprehensive governance, every group in civil society will bear a lot of different pressures,” Mr. Shiu stated, referring to the central authorities’s time period for its rule over Hong Kong. “Even existing may be a crime. Maybe standing here today is a crime.”

When requested how these detained would get assist in the longer term, he paused, then choked up. “Tears are really our most universal language,” he stated.

Tiffany May and Joy Dong contributed reporting.