The organiser of Hong Kong’s Tiananmen Square commemoration vigils will be allowed to run its stalls at the Lunar New Year fair next year after officials initially withheld its registration, citing the need for “more information”.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China accused the government of political censorship, when its bids for stalls at the annual fair were withheld.
The alliance said it would stick to its principles and not back down under pressure.
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But in the evening, the group signed the contract for running the stalls to sell flowers.
In a local newspaper column on Monday, mainland Chinese scholar Tian Feilong, director of the semi-official Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, labelled the alliance a “politically subversive group” that breached the national security law.
Tian also urged the government to “exhaust local legal resources” to punish the alliance.
Alliance secretary Richard Tsoi Yiu-cheong had successfully bid for three stalls at the annual auction in the morning, but said he had been prevented from signing the registration documents by officials from the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department.
Other successful bidders were registered on the spot, he added.
“Who are they seeking approval from? Have they second-guessed their superiors wrongly? Are they bowing to public pressure? We will never know,” Tsoi said at the time. “But one thing is certain: there is definitely political censorship here.”
The department’s senior superintendent of operations, Mabel Ling Mee-bo, had said authorities needed more information.
But the decision was reversed in the evening and an alliance spokesman confirmed it had signed an agreement after the department looked through its track record of running stalls at the fair.
Tsoi said the alliance planned to sell “freedom flowers”, blooms such as irises and roses with pro-democracy messages attached to them.
The alliance was the only political group that showed up for the first session of bidding for stalls on Tuesday.
Tsoi also hit back at Tian’s claims the group had been receiving foreign funding and using Hong Kong as a base to conduct a “colour revolution”.
“We have always been transparent about our finances, we are fully funded by the people of Hong Kong,” Tsoi said.
He added the alliance would stand by its five “operational goals”, which call for the release of dissidents, rehabilitation of the 1989 pro-democracy movement, accountability for the crackdown, the end to one-party rule in mainland China and to build a democratic country.
Over the past 30 years, the alliance has been selling items carrying political messages at the fair. It has also organised events to commemorate the Tiananmen Square crackdown since 1990. The vigil was banned for the first time this year, with police citing the need to enforce social-distancing measures amid the coronavirus pandemic.
However, thousands still gathered at Victoria Park on June 4 this year, and Tsoi and some alliance members were among 24 people charged in August with taking part in an illegal assembly for their participation in what they called vigils in groups of four, the maximum size allowed for public gatherings at the time.
The fair at Victoria Park in Causeway Bay, the largest of 15 such events in the city, is expected to run between February 6 and 13 next year. A total of 1,021 stalls will be set up across the city.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the fair has been scaled down by about 20 per cent and will only sell flowers. No stalls selling dry goods or fast food will be allowed at the venues next year.
Officials said they would review whether to continue with the event based on the number of infections at the time.
Traditionally, political parties and groups sell products in the Lunar New Year that mock political figures and carry political messages. But last year, the government prohibited the sale of dry goods over the anti-government protests, with only 1,284 stalls allowed for selling food and flowers.
The alliance, the League of Social Democrats and the Justice Defence Fund were among few political groups that continued to run stalls at Victoria Park last year.
The league has decided to drop out this year. Its key leader Avery Ng Man-yuen said fewer people visited the fair last year, in the wake of the government’s ban on dry goods.
“In light of the pandemic, we have decided not to run stalls at Victoria Park this year,” he said. “We would rather set up street booths a few blocks away from the park to protest against the government.”
But former lawmaker Cyd Ho Sau-lan, a trustee of the Justice Defence Fund which was set up in 2016, said they would set up a stall. One of the stalls the alliance bid for was for the fund, she said.
“It’s a platform for us to encourage members of the public to carry on the fight,” she said. “Our presence matters.”
She said the group would stick to the rules to only sell flowers, as they did last year.
Business owners noted the low price for the stalls as the bidding started on Tuesday. Previously, stalls were rented out for more than HK$500,000 (US$64,486) each.
Peach blossom seller Lau Hoi-to made the highest bid for a stall on Tuesday morning at just HK$10,000, which he said was “very cheap”.
Some 35 of 60 stalls auctioned in the morning session were rented out at the opening price of HK$5,440, while 14 stalls went unclaimed.
By the end of the day, the department said the highest bid was HK$31,000, 5.7 times the opening price of HK$5,440. A total of 114 wet goods stalls were rented out on Tuesday at an average price of HK$9,880.
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