HONG KONG — As Hong Kong’s crackdown on dissent has intensified over the past year, the authorities have singled out myriad acts and items that they say could threaten national security. Mass protests. Informal elections. Chanting slogans.
Add to that list: chocolate.
The city’s top security official, Chris Tang, said last week that some people in Hong Kong prisons were accumulating chocolates and hair clips — items allowed in limited numbers — to “build power” and “solicit followers,” with the possible 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 told 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 did not specify whom he was accusing. His comments prompted incredulity from several prisoners’ rights advocates, one of whom called them “incomprehensible.” But his remarks came amid a push by officials to cut off Hong Kong’s growing numbers of imprisoned pro-democracy activists from the groundswell of public support they have inspired.
Since Beijing imposed a wide-ranging national security law on the Chinese territory in July 2020, more than 120 people have been arrested, many denied bail before trial. Thousands more have been arrested in connection to mass pro-democracy protests in 2019.
In response, a network of volunteers quickly emerged to support detainees. One group, the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, provided legal services and bail funds. Another, Wallfare, offered jailed protesters pen pals and supplies.
But in August, the 612 fund announced that it was disbanding, and this month, the police announced that they were investigating the organization for potential national security violations. On Tuesday, Wallfare said that it, too, was shutting down; a founder said the group “really just couldn’t go on anymore.”
The pressure on the jailed protesters and their supporters is emblematic of a broader, rapidly spreading chill on Hong Kong’s civil society. The government has wielded the vaguely worded security law to suggest that even expressions of sympathy for antigovernment figures may be illegal. Dozens of pro-democracy groups, including churches and the city’s largest teachers’ union, have shut down in recent months.
On Wednesday, a judge sentenced 12 people, including several former lawmakers, for organizing or participating in a banned vigil last year for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Some got suspended sentences, and others six to 10 months in prison.
The scrutiny has extended to prisoners and their supporters. The Hong Kong authorities have also fined several people for gathering near prisoner transport vans to show support to detained activists as they are shuttled from courthouses to prisons. The crowds have been accused of violating social distancing restrictions.
The comments by Mr. Tang, Hong Kong’s top security official, came after the city’s corrections department announced this month that it had conducted a surprise search at a women’s prison. The search found that six women had “prohibited articles,” officials said. Local news media reported that one of the women was a prominent pro-democracy activist. Aspects of the report were later confirmed by Woo Ying-ming, the head of the corrections department, in an interview with The South China Morning Post.
Prison officials had “received intelligence in recent days” that some people there had “attempted to build up forces and incited others to participate,” according to a department news release. It did not release further information.
Mr. Tang later mentioned the hair clips and chocolates. At an unrelated news conference, he said those items were part of the tactics some prisoners and their allies were using to undermine national security. Others, he said, included the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund’s practice of sending letters to detained protesters, urging them to “continue fighting.” Still others, he added, used their identities — as clergy or local politicians, for example — as excuses to visit prisoners and then help them disseminate information.
His comments have since been echoed by other officials.
In his interview with The South China Morning Post, Mr. Woo said guards had been given the task of producing daily reports on certain “influential figures” within the prison system. “This is how groups begin, like terrorist groups recruiting followers,” Mr. Woo said of the support some of the detainees have, adding that the influence was “subliminal.”
Shiu Ka-chun, a former opposition lawmaker and Wallfare’s founder, called Mr. Tang’s comments “incomprehensible,” saying that his group was performing “humanitarian work.” But in a sign of the pressures facing civil society, the comments also quickly inspired wariness. Mr. Shiu, in an interview with local news media, also said the group would immediately discuss how to prevent any misunderstandings with the authorities.
By Tuesday, Wallfare had announced its disbanding.
After the announcement, some Hong Kong residents pledged to continue 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 — said he had visited detained protesters several times a month. He said he would continue to do so, adding that after he posted about Wallfare’s closure on Facebook, several constituents had reached out about donating crackers or beef jerky for him to take to prison.
But he acknowledged that he would most likely be limited to taking small gifts to individuals, while Wallfare had been able to use its platform to advocate better conditions for prisoner. He emphasized that he had no plans to start a replacement organization of any kind.
“Of course having an organization and a platform is the best,” he said. “But right now, we all know, under the government’s pressure, they have no way to keep going.”
At a news conference about Wallfare’s decision, Mr. Shiu said that he had not been personally contacted by government officials, but 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 said, referring to the central government’s term for its rule over Hong Kong. “Even existing may be a crime. Maybe standing here today is a crime.”
When asked how those detained would get support in the future, he paused, then choked up. “Tears are really our most universal language,” he said.
Tiffany May and Joy Dong contributed reporting.