Hong Kong's Hair Clip Rebellion

National security intervention in matters big and small

By: Tim Hamlett

A few days ago, an elite Hong Kong Police anti-riot squad and a dog unit were dispatched to a women’s prison near the Chinese border in Lo Wu because 18 prisoners were protesting against punishments ordered for other inmates, impelling security chief Chris Tang to say that support for detainees “sowed seeds that threaten national security.”

Apparently, some detainees had unexpected quantities of chocolates and hairclips, which are rationed. 

“Many people may wonder what the problem is with having one more hairclip, one more piece of chocolate. These signify privilege within prison walls,” Tang told reporters. “By smuggling these things inside… [to] recruit followers and build influence, and create hatred towards the government and endanger national security (sic).”

Tang didn’t say why remand prisoners – who are presumed to be innocent until their trials – were subjected to rationing. Readers who find this puzzling need to bear in mind that Hong Kong prisons are subject to very little external scrutiny. The arrival of a flood of articulate political prisoners has perhaps been disturbing.

It seems the underlying problem is that hair clips are rationed per month, but M&M chocolates are rationed on a “per visit” basis. So prisoners who have frequent and generous visitors will accumulate a chocolate surplus. Prudent inmates would perhaps be well advised, on grounds of both humanity and prudence, to be generous with spare sweets.

But the Correctional Services Department, which runs prisons, has expressed willingness to “prevent persons in custody from developing or building up power to oppose the Central Authorities and disrupt Hong Kong.”

This suggests a truly extraordinary level of paranoia. People who need official permission to own a hairclip can hardly be a serious threat to the “Central Authorities” – unless, of course, they are members of a group called the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund which was founded at the start of 2019 anti-government protests and provided such things as legal aid, medical and psychological help, and emergency financing for people arrested or imprisoned, and their families. The inmates in question reportedly included pro-democracy activist Tiffany Yuen.

In August, the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund announced that it was closing down and would cease operations in October because the company handling its finances – provocatively named Alliance for True Democracy – was winding itself up and would no longer be available for this purpose. This was not enough for the bloodhounds. Last week the fund suspended all payments after being informed that it was being investigated on suspicion of national security offenses.

While Hong Kong’s citizens were told at the end of last month that “there is no crackdown on civil society,” according to Chief Executive Carrie Lam, referring to a speech in which she said that the police were merely “ensuring that no groups or individuals are able to endanger national security.” one is left wondering what, in Lam’s view, a “crackdown” would look like, because the erosion of civil society in the city continues apace and not just over hair clips and M&Ms in the Lo Wu women’s facility.

The latest focus has been on an organization called the Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China. This was born in 1989 and inspired by the student movement which eventually led to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, or Incident as we are supposed to call it these days. In its heroic youth, the Alliance organized support for the students, and then operated an underground railway for escapees from the subsequent repression.

After the dust had settled, though, its main activity was to organize an annual commemorative rally on June 4 in Victoria Park, a traditional Hong Kong venue for large gatherings, to commemorate the events of 1989 with speeches and candles. For many years, this was regarded as a legal and proper social ritual, an important piece of evidence for the idea that Hong Kong enjoyed freedoms not offered on the mainland.

The Alliance has also tried to operate a museum commemorating the events of 1989, but this has been subject to constant legal harassment and was closed when police raided it last week in search of evidence.

In the past two years, the annual vigil was banned on public health grounds. This has left the Alliance virtually inactive during the period covered by Hong Kong’s new national security law. Inactivity has not preserved it from occasional suggestions from pro-Beijing figures that the group should be banned. Apparently, the “patriotic” part of its name is not enough to offset the objectionable implications of the “democratic” bit.

The Alliance saw trouble coming. It dismissed all its employees and trimmed its executive committee to reduce the number of likely victims. In due course, a letter arrived from the national security police asking for details of the organization’s funding, membership, and leadership.

The police were relying on a power conferred by the “Implementation Rules” of the national security law, which confer on them the right to require a “foreign or Taiwan agent” to hand over a variety of information. The Alliance’s vice chairman (the chairman is already in prison over an earlier protest), barrister Chow Hang-tung, said that the Alliance was not a foreign agent and the demand for information was accordingly unjustified and refused.

Another member of the Alliance’s committee started proceedings for a judicial review of the police decision. But this is a time-consuming procedure. In the meantime, he, Ms Chow, and four other members of the committee were arrested and charged with failure to provide the requested information.

Two of the alliance’s leaders already in prison, along with Ms Chow, were also charged with subversion. As usually happens in such cases the prosecution asked for a long time to get its ducks in a row and those defendants not already inside were remanded in custody. The national security law vigorously discourages bail.

With its leadership safely accounted for, the Secretary for Security, Chris Tang, announced that he had asked the society to give reasons why it should not be struck off the Companies Register.

It is common in Hong Kong for associations and societies to register themselves as limited companies. This gives the usual advantages of limited liability. The relevant legislation gives the Secretary for Security the right to ask the Chief Executive to dissolve a company if in his view it would not have been acceptable as a registered society.

Societies that do not take the company route must appear on a Register of Societies kept by the police. This was originally a backhanded way of criminalizing Triad membership.

Ironically Mr Tang’s letter was addressed to Ms Chow, by then in prison. The address on the letter was carefully redacted on the version of the letter offered to the media. 

Carrie Lam’s response to the latest development was to repeat a common trick, inventing an opposition of her own imagining and demolishing an argument which nobody else had advanced. Some people had suggested that the alliance didn't need to obey the law because it was part of civil society, she said, but this was a completely "wrong concept."

Actually, nobody had suggested that the society did not need to obey the law for that reason or any other. Some had suggested that the society did not need to respond to the police request for information because it was not a foreign agent.

So that is where we are now. To Carrie Lam’s contention that she is not organizing a crackdown on civil society, the popular answer of who is points to the two Chinese officials in direct charge of Hong Kong matters, both of whom have solid records of zeal in suppressing disapproved opinions on the mainland.

Another offered explanation is that the police force is now entirely free from civilian control - both Security chief Tang and the Chief Secretary are former cops -- and is free to do what it likes. No doubt the force is right in believing that many of the political figures now munching the M&Ms of lawful custody were not fans of its chemical approach to crowd control in 2019.

Whoever is in charge, the crackdown has led to a strange problem. There is a dearth of democratic candidates to contest the carefully rigged elections upcoming to the Legislative Council. This has led to increasingly desperate attempts from supporters of the new system to suggest that some democrats should stand, and that any attempt to discourage such candidates should be criminalized.

Some observers have already suggested that any candidate who survived the newly installed vetting mechanism would have difficulty in appealing to traditional democratic voters. Candidates would have to answer the question: if you’re a democrat how did you pass the national security vetting process? As the legal action continues this may be replaced by another, even more difficult question: if you’re a democrat how come you’re not in prison?

This article is among the stories we choose to make widely available. If you wish to get the full Asia Sentinel experience and access more exclusive content, please do subscribe to us.