Officials shut down Lunar New Year market stalls in Victoria Park over Hong Kong protest displays, Asia News

A pro-democracy group has been ordered to close its stalls at a government-run Lunar New Year market in Hong Kong after they were deemed political and in breach of their lease.

The League of Social Democrats ran two booths – at a cost of around HK$5,000 (S$867) each – at Victoria Park under new rules imposed this year by the city’s administration, which banned politically themed products in an attempt to maintain public order amid the ongoing anti-government protests.

But on Sunday, the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department (FEHD) carried out at least five inspections of the league’s stalls, where material had been posted including a timeline display and political cartoons relating to the unrest sparked in June by the now-withdrawn extradition bill.

Warning notices were pinned at the stalls suggesting the league had violated the lease terms at the market, which only allows the selling of flowers and food, while specifically banning dry goods and the publication or promotion of unrelated materials.

The league was ordered to remove protest material by Monday afternoon. PHOTO: South China Morning Post

The department ordered the removal of the material by Monday midnight, “to protect the public interest”.

Inspectors returned to the stall at about noon on Monday, saying the league had been given enough time to remove the banners and decorations, but had failed to comply.

The department then decided to terminate the lease agreement immediately.

“Please keep the stall intact and well maintained and return it to the department by 3pm,” read a termination notice posted at the stand. “The government reserves the right to recover all expenses, losses incurred.”

However, no further action had been taken by the department by Monday evening.

The league argued it did not have a chance to rebut the department’s assertions, and asked officials to explain their decision publicly.

Avery Ng Man-yuen, chairman of the league, said the department’s decision to close their booths was “ridiculous”.

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“Our displays are mainly to get people to understand the current protests’ situation and police violence, and people are here to buy flowers because they support us,” he said.

“We are a flower booth as well as an exhibition. There should not be any contradictions. I am ready to face any legal consequences.”

Ng said the group’s booths were not violating the lease terms as stated by the department, because they were selling flowers.

He argued the closure was against the freedom of speech, adding: “But we know the contract gives them ultimate power. Let’s wait and let the world see.”

Ng added he had been asking officials for an explanation, without success, since Monday morning, before receiving the termination letter.

The Post has approached the FEHD for comments.

Tommy Wong, a university student who came to the market with a friend, said he was surprised that the government would not accept such a display board.

“The department is nitpicking from small matters. Maybe they should be less rigid and focus more on how to make the market more interesting,” he said, adding he did not know dry good stalls were banned this year.

“I thought it’s so spacious because some stalls are not set up yet. I don’t know the new rules this year.”

But Rocky Au, a 40-year-old shopper and his wife, thought it would be better for the LSD to follow the rules.

“The government has already said no political materials are allowed, to avoid chaos I guess, and if everyone just tried to ignore the rules, it will be a mess,” he said.

The market at Victoria Park has been quieter than usual this year. Some areas which used to be packed with dry goods stalls and people were now filled with empty spaces.

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Some other political associations, such as the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (the Alliance), the Justice Defence Fund and one pro-democracy business at No 49 also had stalls at the fair selling plants and flowers.

The first two said their businesses had not been interrupted, and the FEHD did not object to the Justice Defence Fund putting up a publicity stand with pictures of the nine democracy leaders responsible for the 2014 protest movement.

In contrast, the pro-democracy stall incurred a HK$2,000 fine from the Environmental Department on Monday afternoon, after two undercover inspectors found they did not charge a 50 cents plastic bag fee when giving them out.

The 15 government-run fairs and festivals around Hong Kong end on Saturday, and this is the first time dry goods stalls have not been allowed at fairs.

The FEHD said earlier the measure was needed for more effective crowd control.

This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.

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