Protests reignited in Hong Kong after Beijing introduced a draft national security law in May that will bypass the legislature there and would erode freedoms in the special administrative region.
The protests first erupted on 9 June last year, where an estimated 1 million people took to the streets to demonstrate against the extradition bill that would allow the Government to extradite fugitive offenders to mainland China, Taiwan and other jurisdictions.
The bill was withdrawn by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor on 4 September 2019, but it wasn’t enough to stop the protests as the Government has yet to address other demands such as the problem of police brutality.
The national security law, on the other hand, has sparked concerns over the fate of “one country, two systems” policy that granted the country the rights and freedoms of a semi-autonomous region for 50 years following its return to Chinese rule in 1997.
Last month, nearly 500 people have been arrested in the ensuing of the protests – adding to the thousands that have been arrested last year – and the funding to help thousands of young protestors to pay their legal bills and make bail are running short as donations dry up.
Hong Kong lawyer, Daniel Wong Kwok-tung was prompted to trade in his car for a cheaper model, which he believes is the least he can do to help a younger generation of Hongkongers to fight against Beijing’s persistent intervention in the city.
“I wished my generation had done more in our time, and the kids wouldn’t have to suffer so much,” the 70-year-old lawyer told the Bloomberg. “I don’t have children of my own. I would do as much as I can for the kids, until I fall.”
Mr Wong has been helping protesters over the past year without accepting any legal fees. In April, he spent almost HK$5 million to launch a restaurant named Aegis in Taipei, which hires protesters in exile and help them with education, accommodation and legal aid.
Spark Alliance – a non-profit online platform that provides legal and other help for protesters in Hong Kong – would turn to Mr Wong when it comes to defending protesters who end up in legal troubles.
Non-profit that supports protesters shut down by authorities, accused of money-laundering
However, Spark Alliance’s bank account was shut down in December and HK$70 million was frozen by Hong Kong authorities, while four of its members were detained on suspicion of money laundering.
Police alleged that some of the donations were used by fund owners for other investments. Senior Superintendent Chan Wai-kei claimed that the fund was transferred to a shell company and “a significant portion” of the money was invested in personal insurance products.
In response to the matter, Spark Alliance took to Facebook describing the police allegations as “smears”, adding that the four arrested members had legal representation.
Following Spark Alliance’s legal troubles, Mr Wong has been receiving calls directly from protesters who need legal aid. He noted that bail after arrest ranges from HK$1,000 to more than HK$10,000, depending on the seriousness of the charges.
“People are less well-off these months obviously,” he remarked. “Another reason is, sadly, that we all feel hopeless and cloudy for the future. This battle isn’t ending, and the chance of us winning seems less and less.”
Non-profit group struggles to collect donations to support protesters
Meanwhile, 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund – another non-profit group formed on 12 June 2019 aims to provide financial aid to protesters – now became one of the last resort for protesters to get financial support.
The group is led by prominent pro-democracy figures – including Cyd Ho, Margaret Ng and Cardinal Joseph Zen – and consistently discloses audited income statements online. 612 Fund noted that its accounting procedures have so far helped it from ending up like Spark Alliances.
But it’s also struggling to collect donations. Former legislator and a trustee of the 612 Fund, Cyd Ho, is worried about how much longer the fund could go on.
“The economic downturn and the US-China trade war is going to threaten a lot of people’s livelihood, hence their ability to support us,” said Mr Ho, who was among 15 prominent pro-democracy supporters arrested in April.
According to the group, at least 34 protest-related cases were heard at various courts in a week in mid-May, involving over 200 defendants. It added that the expense per defendant is estimated at HK$258,000, assuming a 10-day trial at magistrates’ court.
Mr Ho said that the group will first encourage its clients to apply for the city’s legal aid so that they can help those who are not covered with the aid.
Despite the group claimed that legal cases related to protests increased 75 per cent in March, it saw a 39 per cent dip in disposable funding to HK$32.2 million, and the figure continued to fall to HK$23.8 million by the end of April.
The group managed to replenish the fund and brought in HK$24 million in 20 days, after it made a plea for help in early May – 612 Fund’s next audited statement is expected to be released later in the month.
There are restaurants and retail brands who vocally support the protests as well, which are classified as part of the “Yellow Economy Circle”. Aello, a fruit tea shop in the suburban area of Yuen Long, put up a sign saying that it will donate a day’s net income to the 612 Fund.
While some individuals prefer to donate directly to “parent groups” which is a code name used for residents who provide food and shelters to young protestors.
UK to take in nearly 3 million Hongkongers if China proceeds security law
Following the announcement of China’s national security law, immigration consultants in Hong Kong have been receiving hundreds of new calls as many people are applying for or to renew their British National (Overseas) passport.
This came after Prime Minister of UK, Boris Johnson announced on 3 June that the country would be willing to take in more than 2.8 million people from Hong Kong if China proceeds to impose the national security law.
The UK would be making “one of the biggest changes” in its visa system in history, as it would allow Hongkongers with British National (Overseas) passport to live and work in the UK for a renewable period of a year, Mr Johnson wrote in The Times of London column.
“Many people in Hong Kong fear that their way of life — which China pledged to uphold — is under threat,” he noted. “If China proceeds to justify their fears, then Britain could not in good conscience shrug our shoulders and walk away. I still hope that China will remember that responsibilities go hand in glove with strength and leadership.”
An estimated 350,000 people living in Hong Kong are eligible, with a further 2.5 million qualified to apply.
In response, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab on 8 June that outside interference in Hong Kong’s affairs will not be allowed.
“China has not interfered in the internal affairs of Britain,” the Minister remarked as he emphasized that Beijing will maintain its “one country, two systems” principle.
Security law seems like the beginning of the end of Hong Kong, says a protester
For some young protesters in Hong Kong, the battle is deterrent, especially with the national security law.
Protester, Veronica Li, told the US News that Hongkongers started to see the end of their country due to the new security law introduced by China.
“I feel like we tried every approach we could think of last year,” Ms Li noted. “But it’s just been blow after blow and many of us just feel weary. I imagine those that [who] will leave the city. Sad to say, but this new security law seems like the beginning of the end of Hong Kong.”
Another protester, Jeanne-Pierre Cabestan said that some people decided to pull out from the demonstrations over the fears of getting arrested.
“The police have adopted a lightning strategy aimed at nipping in the bud any protest, and arresting many, dissuading some from joining the protest,” said Mr Cabestan.