Unlicensed Hong Kong radio station that hosted many pro-democracy guests goes off air after 18 years

Founder Bull Tsang said it was getting increasingly difficult for the station to invite guests following the enactment of a Beijing-imposed law that jailed or silenced many activists

"The Bull" Tsang Kin-shing
"The Bull" Tsang Kin-shing, right, founder of Hong Kong's pro-democracy Citizens' Radio station along with guests hold their last broadcast in Hong Kong, Friday, June 30, 2023.Louise Delmotte (AP)

An unlicensed pro-democracy radio station in Hong Kong was shutting down on Friday, going off air after 18 years of service. The closure of Citizens’ Radio came on the eve of the 26th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China’s rule.

Since its launch in 2005, the station has hosted various prominent democrats in its shows, including former lawmakers Szeto Wah, Emily Lau, Albert Ho and Lee Cheuk-yan.

But its founder Bull Tsang said it was getting increasingly difficult for the station to invite guests following the enactment of a Beijing-imposed law that jailed or silenced many activists.

Coupled with banking problems and limited resources, he had no choice but to say goodbye, he said.

“It’s hard to let go. It’s like my third son,” Tsang, 67, told reporters before he hosted his last show on Friday night.

The closure reflects the collapse of the city’s pro-democracy movement under the national security law following massive protests in 2019.

After the law’s enactment three years ago, dozens of civic groups disbanded, most of the city’s leading activists were charged with alleged national security crimes, and two vocal media outlets shut down as their top management was accused of sedition or collusion.

Large numbers of democracy supporters also left Hong Kong as they found that the promise of allowing the former British colony to retain its Western-style freedoms for 50 years after its return to Chinese rule on July 1 in 1997 was becoming increasingly threadbare.

On Saturday, the city will mark its handover anniversary with official celebrations. The annual massive pro-democracy protest held for years every July 1, however, appears to be a thing of the past — even as daily life has largely returned to normal following years of pandemic restrictions.

The League of Social Democrats leader Chan Po-ying told The Associated Press that her political party was pressured to cancel its plan to stage small-scale protest but that she could not give more details about this.

While Tsang’s radio station has not been directly targeted by the security law, the veteran pro-democracy activist said his guests were also unclear about whether their words would be in breach of the vaguely-defined red lines.

He added the station could not pay rent after August since its bank account was recently blocked from receiving donations.

Hang Seng Bank, which handles Tsang’s account, said in a reply to a request for comment from the AP that it cannot comment on matters regarding individual accounts.

Tsang said the recent events forced him to end his years of open defiance against the government after officials rejected to grant him a license for broadcasting in 2006. Over the years, Tsang did not give up his “civil disobedience” against the what he called restrictive public access to the city’s airwaves, even after he was convicted and fined over unlicensed broadcasting and his radio station was raided by authorities.

He said he might try to sell his creative drawings to raise funds after the station’s closure in a bid to continue his work in another way. But even so, things will no longer be the same, he said.

“In the future, it is very difficult to have such form of civil disobedience like this in Hong Kong,” he said.

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