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Hong Kong's 'Occupy' leaders now face quiet but persistent harassment

Email hacks, shadowing, petitions, placards and curses are being aimed at the organizers of Hong Kong's 'umbrella movement,' which ended months ago. The bullying tactics increasingly look like those faced by activists on the mainland.

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    Student leader Alex Chow, center, carries a banner with other students during a democracy march to Central, demanding for universal suffrage in Hong Kong on Feb. 1, 2015. The march is the first large-scale demonstration since the Occupy Central protest ended last year as the government started a second round of public consultation on democratic reform. The banner reads: 'Withdraw.'
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Professor Chan Kin-man is not an overly suspicious fellow. Yet recent harassment here has led him to sweep his rooms for bugging devices, and to fit a security chain and combination lock on his university office door.

For a year and a half, the Yale-educated sociologist has received dozens of hate letters, including death threats, with many of them cursing him as a traitor for helping found the Occupy Central civil disobedience movement that partly shut down Hong Kong last fall. 

Shortly before the 79-day movement started in late September, Chan noticed someone standing guard on 24-hour shifts opposite the entrance of his housing compound. Banners denouncing him have been hung across from his home. In an interview, he described a car following him that pulled over when he did; he has seen strangers deliberately taking pictures of he and his daughter.

 Mr. Chan's e-mail account at the Chinese University of Hong Kong has repeatedly been tampered with by hackers whom college e-mail administrators traced to China. Groups of pro-Beijing protesters have staged loud protests at the university, demanding that his employer fire him. The pro-Beijing press here is running an unrelenting campaign against the Occupy movement, accusing Chan and Occupy co-founders Benny Tai and Rev. Chu Yiu-ming of inciting violence and colluding with “foreign forces” to ruin Hong Kong’s stability. 

The boisterous Occupy movement aimed to allow Hong Kongers to freely elect their political leader by 2017, as China has promised. Yet Beijing saw the move as rebellious. Occupy activists oppose China’s requirement that candidates for Hong Kong's top job must be vetted by a nominating committee of Beijing allies before running for office. Beijing, for its part, is wary of calls here for full democracy that could unleash similar demands across China.

Chan is just one of many pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong to suffer harassment because of a pursuit for greater political freedom. Moreover, the way they are harassed is becoming alarmingly similar to the way mainland Chinese activists and their families have long been targeted, analysts say.

Hong Kong has enjoyed a thriving civil and open society since the British colonial era and the tradition has continued under the "one country two systems" arrangement under which it was handed over to China in 1997.  Veteran pro-democracy advocates say harassment of activists was rarely heard of in past decades and is seen as out of keeping with Hong Kong's ideals and approach.

The methods

Cases of mainland Chinese activists and dissidents targeted by state security agents are well documented. These include arbitrary detention, being followed, having phone and computer communications tapped, and seeing loved ones harassed.  In some cases, their children are followed to school and the employers of their spouses are pressured to sack them.

Other leaders of the Occupy movement have also been targeted, the Monitor has found. 

Reverend Chu Yiu-ming is so used to telephone harassment that he no longer uses his mobile phone; his church office phone still receive hundreds of nuisance calls.  At the start of the Occupy movement, Rev. Chu's son noticed he was being followed and filmed when taking his own child to kindergarten. Footage of the film was later sent to Chu as an implicit threat. Chu’s son also found posters with photos of himself and his parents posted near his home and his church, urging them to “repent.” 

Occupy founder Benny Tai, a law professor at Hong Kong University and prominent figure in the protest, says he also receives harassing phone calls and hate letters. One missive contained a razor blade. Several times, protests have been staged outside his house. Banners with hostile messages were hung near his home. His e-mail account has been hacked, and the leaked content picked up and used by his critics, including details of meetings with foreign diplomats and of anonymous donations for the Occupy movement. Hong Kong chief executive C.Y. Leung accused him of colluding with “foreign forces.” Mr. Tai insists that donors were local and that it is normal for scholars to have exchanges with foreigners. 

The mother of Joshua Wong, a high-profile Occupy student leader, recently wrote that the family received floral funeral wreaths several times. Her son's mobile number along with her own phone number, as well as the family’s former address, were made public on the Internet.

Further, since the launch of the so-called “umbrella movement,” as Occupy is also called, the formal legal charges that activists here face from the city police are also starting to resemble the legal charges that activists and dissidents in mainland China face from state security there. 

Chan, Tai, and Chu, along with scores of other activists, were arrested by Hong Kong police last month on suspicion of inciting, organizing, and participating in unauthorized assemblies. They were temporarily released pending investigation. 

The accusations

In late September, Mr. Wong was accused of “disturbing public order” and urging people to take part in an “illegal assembly” after leading students to push into the Hong Kong government headquarters in a protest for political rights. Police detained him and searched his home for two hours. They confiscated Wong's computer, memory cards, and a hard disk. The homes of two other student leaders, Lester Shum and Alex Chow, were similarly searched. 

After the Occupy movement ended, the three were arrested on suspicion of inciting, organizing, convening, and participating in unauthorized assemblies – but were released pending investigation.

In recent months, more than a dozen people have been charged with “access to a computer with criminal or dishonest intent," and for posting messages online that police say “incite” people to take to the streets. This is a chilling message because it appears that Hong Kong authorities are policing the Internet in the same way the Chinese government is. China often jails activists who post critical essays online.  Recently, it was revealed that 28 microblog messages were used by Beijing to charge prominent mainland Chinese human rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang with inciting ethnic hatred and separatism.

Altogether, the level of unofficial harassment and of formal police investigation is making many in Hong Kong feel increasingly intimidated and fearful for their safety.

“What happens to Chinese activists is now being replicated in Hong Kong, we’re now facing the same thing,” Chan says.

Maya Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, says many of the methods used against activists in Hong Kong were “disturbing developments” and worried that the “Hong Kong leadership may be increasingly adopting attitudes towards dissent similar to those of the central government’s.”

Losing faith

Chan no longer takes the time to report ongoing harassment as he has lost faith in Hong Kong’s government. He says that Hong Kong officials often discuss deeper ties with China but rarely spend time talking about Hong Kongers’ rights to freedoms of assembly and speech. He says that Hong Kong chief executive Mr. Leung is charging Occupy organizers with collusion with "foreign forces" by using e-mail content illegally obtained from mainland security sources. 

“It is difficult to believe he [C.Y. Leung] would defend our existing core values,” he says. “This place is feeling more and more like a mainland Chinese city. “

Chu, a 30-year veteran of Hong Kong social movements (including an operation to rescue students and intellectuals after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown), says the current intimidation tactics against individuals and their families were unprecedented within his memory.

“This is all new to me. I am very perplexed. Has Hong Kong become like what the Cultural Revolution used to be?," he asks. “Hong Kong is becoming a very unfamiliar place. This time, the whole society has changed, it has become more like China.” 

Chu points out that Leung endorsed the anti-Occupy campaign by signing its signature campaign. He says that is a departure from a past practice of political neutrality. The gesture by Leung, says Chu, effectively encourages attacks on the pro-democracy camp, causing conflict and division. 

Meanwhile, China's state-run People's Daily weighed in Feb. 16 with a different take on post-Occupy harassment, running a story about cases of prejudice by Hong Kongers against some of the estimated 150.000 Chinese mainland students now studying here. It described negative comments and "targeted abuse" of mainland students who are often accused of taking the place or stealing the future of Hong Kong- born youth. 

A request to the Hong Kong chief executive's office for comment on whether the charges of harassment of Occupy leaders is government backed or politically motivated remains unanswered.  

Chinese legal scholar Teng Biao, who had been followed, arbitrarily detained, tortured, and beaten by mainland Chinese police while living here until recently, agrees that Hong Kong today has started to feel more like China.

“Without democracy and rule of law, human rights in Hong Kong will inevitably be eroded,” Mr. Teng says. 

But Benny Tai argues that the umbrella movement has raised democratic awareness among ordinary people. As the gap between the people and the government widens, he says, Beijing will agree to people’s democratic demands even if only for the sake of its own survival.

“We have to persist with our democratic awareness and wait for an opportunity,” he says.

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