Thirty-two years after it was set up to mourn the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen massacre and campaign for democracy in China, the organizers of a now-banned candlelight vigil in Hong Kong's Victoria Park deleted all of their online posts, obeying a directive from the city's national security police.
The group's leaders have included some of the most prominent pro-democracy activists and human rights campaigners, and have kept alive the images of the 1989 democracy movement as well as the memory of the victims of the bloody crackdown by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) on the night of June 3-4 that ended it.
Its inaugural march took place even before the massacre, with more than a million Hong Kong residents taking peacefully to the streets in protest at the imposition of martial law on Beijing by then premier Li Peng, winding up at the headquarters of Xinhua News Agency, which functioned as Beijing's representative office in Hong Kong during British colonial rule.
The May 21 march -- in defiance of a No. 8 typhoon signal from the Hong Kong Observatory -- caught world headlines, and gave rise to the Alliance, formed from representatives of more than 200 civil society groups and a 20-member standing committee headed by pro-democracy heavyweights Szeto Wah and Martin Lee.
The Alliance also played a part in Operation Yellowbird, that helped smuggle the leaders of the 1989 protest movement out of mainland China to seek refuge in third countries.
Its five goals have remained the same: to call for the release of pro-democracy activists jailed in mainland China, and to campaign for a reappraisal of the official verdict of "counterrevolutionary rebellion" on the 1989 democracy movement and accountability for the perpetrators of the Tiananmen massacre.
It also openly campaigned for an end to one-party dictatorship by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and for democratic elections.
It also maintained close ties with Ding Zilin and her Tiananmen Mothers victims' campaign group, and was accused from the outset by CCP mouthpiece the People's Daily of trying to overthrow the Chinese government.
Szeto and Lee lost their seats on the Hong Kong Basic Law Drafting Committee, set up to write the city's mini-constitution governing the 1997 handover to China.
'Incitement to subversion'
More than three decades later, that accusation has followed the group's members to their doorsteps in Hong Kong, given teeth by a draconian law imposed by the CCP in the wake of the 2019 protest movement, sparked by the erosion of the city's promised freedoms.
The Alliance stands accused of acting as the agent of a foreign power, with leaders Chow Hang-tung, Albert Ho, and Lee Cheuk-yan arrested on suspicion of "incitement to subvert state power," and the group's assets frozen.
Chow was arrested on Sept. 8 and denied bail, while Lee and Ho are already serving jail terms linked to their activism.
Four other Alliance members, Tang Ngok-kwan, 53, Simon Leung, 36, Chan To-wai, 57, and Tsui Hon-kwong, 72, have been charged with "failure to comply with a notice to provide information."
The group had refused to provide detailed information on its members, activities, and funding sources to national security police, arguing that it isn't an agent of a foreign government, and therefore isn't bound by that part of the national security law.
But by 10.00 p.m. on Sept. 16, 2021, the Alliance had fully complied with the national security police's take-down order, removing all content from its accounts on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.
Call for release, sanctions
Sixty-one human rights groups around the world called for the immediate and unconditional release of Alliance members, as well as for sanctions by concerned governments against the officials responsible.
They also hit out at the raid on the June 4 Memorial Hall museum, accusing the CCP of trying to erase collective memories of the 1989 bloodshed.
"I hope that some governments will be able to offer some support, so that organizations outside of Hong Kong can get access to the information that has now been deleted in Hong Kong, including historical materials relating to the 1989 democracy movement," Human Rights Watch (HRW) researcher Maya Wang told RFA.
"These 61 rights groups ... condemn the suppression of the Alliance, and call on governments to jointly sanction the Hong Kong officials responsible," she said.
Zhou Fengsuo, a former student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen protests and now chairman of the U.S.-based rights group Humanitarian China, said he is very grateful for the work of the Alliance over the years.
"The spirit of the 1989 democracy movement stayed alive and was handed down largely because of the Alliance," Zhou told RFA. "Naturally, it was a thorn in the side of the CCP, which was bound to target it in various ways."
"They were always going to snuff out the candlelight vigil eventually," he said.
He said the fact that the Alliance is being charged retroactively showed the national security law was "evil."
"This is pure political persecution," Zhou said. "They are innocent and should be released immediately, and the international community needs to take more action to support them."
Shih Yi-hsiang of the Taiwan Association for Human Rights agreed.
"Activities related to June 4, 1989 and the June 4 Memorial Hall should be protected under the international covenant on civil and political rights," Shih said. "The Hong Kong government shouldn't be targeting defenders of human rights."
"We strongly protest these actions by the Hong Kong government."
Meanwhile, Bao Tong, former top CCP aide to late ousted premier Zhao Ziyang, whose fall came after he took a conciliatory line with the students on Tiananmen Square, commented via Twitter:
"Instead of ordering the great dictator Deng Xiaoping and the then Central Military Commission of the CCP to surrender information on the massacre, they cruelly persecuted the Hong Kong Alliance, which had campaigned for justice for 32 years," Bao tweeted on Sept. 9.
"Where is the security when a country falls into the hands of a national security agency?"
Around half of the Alliance's leadership are currently facing jail terms under a city-wide crackdown on public dissent and peaceful opposition under the national security law.
Many of those facing jail are veteran leaders who have been actively involved with organizing annual vigils marking the June 4, 1989 bloodshed, as well as running a museum dedicated to the mass, student-led democracy movement that saw hundreds of thousands occupy Tiananmen Square in the weeks leading up to the massacre.
The CCP has presided over a city-wide crackdown on peaceful protest and political opposition since imposing a draconian national security law on Hong Kong from July 1, 2020.
The law, which saw China's feared state security police set up a headquarters in Hong Kong to oversee "serious" cases, has been widely criticized by governments, rights groups, and lawyers as an assault on Hong Kong's traditional freedoms of speech, association, and political participation.
In December, 47 opposition politicians and democracy activists were arrested for "subversion" under the law after they held a democratic primary designed to maximize their chances of winning seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo).
The authorities responded by postponing the election and arresting those who took part in the primary.
Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by By Yitong Wu, Cheng Yut Yiu and Chingman.