Prominent Hong Kong civil rights group disbands, citing government pressure

Members of the pro-democracy group Civil Human Rights Front take part in a march toward the flag raising venue ahead of the National Day ceremony on October 1, 2020, in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong (CNN)Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the pro-democracy group that organized some of Hong Kong's biggest protests, announced Sunday that it was disbanding -- the latest of a string of civic organizations that have dissolved in the wake of a sweeping national security law.

CHRF, an over-arching organization of local pro-democracy groups, organized mass marches that drew as many as 2 million participants during the 2019 pro-democracy, anti-government protests, according to some estimates.
It has long played a critical role in Hong Kong's civic society, as the organizer of the annual July 1 protests that mark the anniversary of the city's handover from Britain to China.
    "We've aimed to advocate for the human rights and freedom of Hong Kong people. We have abided by the 'legal, peaceful, rational and non-violent' principles in organizing mass demonstrations, allowing everyone in society to have a chance in speaking up on issues they care about," CHRF said in a statement announcing its dissolution.
      "Unfortunately, for the past year or so, the government repeatedly used the pandemic as a pretext to reject the front and other organizations' applications to hold rallies."
      The group said with its leader, Figo Chan, in custody for his part in 2019's protests, and no one willing to take over, the organization had "no choice but to disband."
      The Hong Kong Police Department acknowledged CHRF's dissolution in a statement but said it would not absolve the group of any potential criminal liability. The statement alleged that CHRF, which was founded in 2002, broke the law because it failed to properly register with the relevant Hong Kong government departments. CHRF did not immediately respond to the police force's accusations.
        CNN has reached out to the Hong Kong Police Department and the government's Information Services Department for further comment.
        The mass marches organized by CHRF in 2019 began as peaceful demonstrations -- but clashes with police soon tipped the protests into a six-month-long political crisis that often turned violent. The protests were condemned by the central government in Beijing, which watched from across the border with growing impatience.
        Demonstrators march during the Civil Human Rights Front march in Wan Chai, Hong Kong, on Sunday, July 21, 2019.
        When coronavirus restrictions put a hold on all protests, Beijing moved to promulgate a national security law in June 2020 that criminalized secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. All four crimes hold a maximum sentence of life imprisonment.
        In the year since, national security police have arrested protesters and journalists, raided newsrooms, and censored textbooks and websites.
        Authorities have repeatedly denied that they are cracking down on political opposition or stifling dissent.
        "The National Security Law only targets an extremely small minority of criminals and acts which endanger national security, whereas human rights and freedoms enjoyed by the overwhelming majority of the citizens will not be affected at all," said Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam in a speech on July 5.
        But critics say the voluntary closure of the CHRF shows the law's far-reaching impact across various sectors and aspects of society.

        Unions and organizations dissolve

        CHRF is just the latest in a string of organizations and groups that have chosen to disband or leave Hong Kong in recent months, citing diminishing civil liberties and a shrinking public sphere.
        On Tuesday, the Professional Teachers' Union (PTU), a group of teachers and educators with more than 100,000 members, announced that it was disbanding -- a decision that came after increasing pressure from authorities.
        Last weekend, several Chinese state-run news outlets published articles accusing the union of poisoning the minds of children, and posing a threat to national security. Just hours later, Hong Kong's Education Bureau announced it was formally cutting ties with the union, which it called "no different than a political group," according to public broadcaster RTHK.
        In a letter to its members, the union said it was "deplorable" that the political environment had changed so drastically that civic groups face an untenable future, according to RTHK.
        The government's renouncing of the teachers' union is "absurd" for several reasons, said Joseph Cheng, a prominent Hong Kong political commentator now based in New Zealand -- one being that they are a relatively moderate group which had traditionally expressed support for government policies.
        "The PTU certainly has no inclination in support of Hong Kong independence," Cheng said. "They are teachers, they are moderates, cautious, they don't want to have anything to do with violent actions."
        "It was only whe