Glancing at bags of cash stuffed to the brim earlier this month, Gary Fan (范國威) simply wanted someone to remove them from an office in Hong Kong used by his political party.
The former pro-democracy lawmaker had collected HK$2.7 million (US$346,765) during an anti-government protest the day before and was waiting for someone to pick it up from a mysterious group known as Spark Alliance that helps bail protesters out of jail.
The next day, a person whom he knew and trusted came to collect the cash, even though Fan said he did not know who exactly was behind the group or where the money ended up.
Illustration: Mountain People
“We just work by an honor system now, trusting them with a good cause,” Fan said in a Dec. 11 interview, adding that Spark Alliance has “earned credibility with real work,” such as getting legal assistance for protesters.
“I absolutely agree there should be more disclosure, transparency and accountability when you take money from the public,” he added.
Police on Thursday last week announced the arrests of four people connected with Spark Alliance for suspected money laundering, the first cases brought over the financing of the demonstrations after six months of protests against China’s tightening grip over Hong Kong.
Authorities froze HK$70 million of bank deposits and personal insurance products linked to the fund, while also seizing HK$130,000 in cash.
“The police attempted, through false statements, to distort the work of Spark Alliance as money laundering for malicious uses,” the group said in a statement on Facebook. “Spark Alliance condemns this kind of defamatory action.”
The crackdown deals a major blow to demonstrators as they face ever-mounting legal bills, with more than 6,000 people arrested since June.
Spark Alliance, one of the largest crowd-funding campaigns supporting the protests, plays a crucial behind-the-scenes role — often sending anonymous representatives to bail protesters out of jail in the middle of the night.
The latest arrests risk deterring Hong Kong’s professional class from giving more cash, potentially curbing a substantial source of funds that has helped sustain the protests longer than anyone had expected. They also show the limits of the leaderless movement’s ability to manage tens of millions of dollars with little oversight outside of a formal financial system.
Funds bankrolling the protests have collectively raised at least HK$254 million since June, with 70 percent coming from just two groups, Spark Alliance and the 612 Humanitarian Fund, according to a tally based on disclosures from the groups and an analysis of publicly available documents.
That figure does not reflect all the money raised related to the protests, only the funds Bloomberg News could verify.
The HK$254 million alone amounts to a third of the money the territory has spent in overtime pay to 11,000 police officers since June, and would be able to purchase some 300,000 gas masks, but the largest costs faced by protesters are legal fees that could stretch out for years.
Nearly 1,000 people have been charged for offenses such as rioting, which carries a jail sentence of as much as a decade, police say.
The 612 Humanitarian Fund said it can cost up to HK$1.8 million per person for a 60-day legal defense, and many trials last far longer. Some proceedings related to Hong Kong’s 2014 “Umbrella movement” protests are still ongoing.
Among dozens of groups, Spark Alliance is one of the most secretive: Even some donors and lawyers who assist the group say they do not know who runs it, while the bank account listed on its Web site belongs to a firm that owns a pest-control company.
A person who picked up Spark Alliance’s hotline last week said that the number was only for protester requests. The group did not respond to requests for comment via Facebook, Whatsapp or Telegram.
“Spark is probably less transparent, but people tend to believe them,” said Jason, a protester in his 30s who asked to be identified by his English name.
He said he memorized the group’s telephone number and called it after he was arrested in August. Seven hours later, two lawyers helped arrange HK$4,000 in bail money.
“Everyone knows the cost to fight for this movement and not everyone can afford lawyer fees,” Jason said. “We need protection.”
Over the past few months Jason has raised HK$500,000 for Spark Alliance and other charities through the sale of Hong Kong-themed figurines, including a miniature of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) and a masked protester.
Asked on Thursday last week if he would still give the money to Spark Alliance, Jason said he wanted more information on the arrests.
Even before the police action, many of the bankers, accountants and other Hong Kong professionals who give money in lieu of battling authorities in the streets were concerned about retribution for supporting the protests.
While lawyers say it would be difficult to prove a donor breached any laws, people fear that reporting mechanisms in place to deter terrorist financing and money laundering could still end up flagging contributions to the authorities.
HSBC Holdings PLC last month said it shut down Spark Alliance’s bank account after it “spotted activity differing from the stated purpose of the company account.”
HSBC decided to close the account, said people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified.
Freezing it would entail locking up millions in funds raised to support the protesters. After closing the account, the bank returned more than HK$50 million in checks to people affiliated with Spark Alliance, one of the people said.
It was unclear whether the group had found another bank since the checks had not been cashed and the account owner had not provided relevant information, they said.
“HSBC never takes the decision to suspend or close any account lightly,” bank spokeswoman Maggie Cheung said, while declining to comment on specific details.
The bank on Friday last week said that its decision to close the account was unrelated to the “current Hong Kong situation,” without elaborating.
Spark Alliance’s Facebook page lists the account holder as Prime Management Service Ltd. The only business in active operation with that name is wholly owned by company director Tony Wong (王慕雄), who also runs a pest-control company, according to LinkedIn.
Reached on Dec. 11 through a mobile telephone number listed in the companies registry, Wong said that he “did not know these things,” and hung up when asked why Prime Management Service lent the use of its bank account to Spark Alliance.
Spark Alliance on Nov. 18 said that it would cease accepting money via bank transfers after HSBC closed its account. Instead, it said it would sell gift cards through its Web site.
Since then, a stream of supporters have posted photographs of their gift card receipts on Facebook.
Transactions are processed by Paypal and Stripe, but it is unclear where the funds went from there. On Friday last week, the Web site appeared to be stripped of all previous information and a donation function.
The Hong Kong government earlier this month referred requests for comment to the police, which had declined to comment. Police on Thursday last week said that Spark Alliance claimed to help arrested protesters, but instead bought insurance products.
“We do not exclude the possibility that the fund is used as a reward to encourage teenagers to come out and join in the civil unrest,” Acting Hong Kong Police Senior Superintendent Chan Wai-kei (陳偉基) told reporters.
The police did not disclose the names of those arrested.
The shadowy nature of financing for the protests has helped the Chinese government and state-run media outlets push a narrative that the demonstrations are being financed by the US and other foreign powers.
Beijing threatened sanctions this month against US-based groups such as the National Endowment for Democracy, which has donated US$686,000 to Hong Kong nonprofits this year.
The group called China’s accusations “categorically false.”
On the ground in Hong Kong, fundraising tactics have been hotly debated among protesters as legal costs increase. Some have criticized Spark Alliance for a lack of transparency and others have denounced 612 Humanitarian Fund for hoarding cash.
Named after the date in June when demonstrations escalated, the fund appears to be the polar opposite of Spark Alliance. It discloses audited financial statements online and requires protesters to give real names for legal aid.
It has 19 employees and trustees include well-known figures such as singer and democracy advocate Denise Ho (何韻詩), Cardinal Joseph Zen (陳日君) and barrister Margaret Ng (吳靄儀).
The vastly different management styles of Spark Alliance and 612 Humanitarian Fund mirror divergent tactics in the wider protest movement, which has sought to avoid the splintering factions that have hurt previous democracy crusades in Hong Kong.
One side caters to frontline protesters, who use anonymity and violence to pressure authorities, while the other supports the pro-democracy movement’s goals within traditional legal boundaries.
The fund has been chided in online forums for deploying only 24 percent of the money it raised, while asking protesters to first apply for legal aid from the government. Other critics see the fund as part of an older political establishment in Hong Kong that has failed the younger generation of democracy advocates and they believe that Spark Alliance is closer to the protesters in the trenches.
“The younger generation doesn’t trust in any institutions, not even those that advocate for democracy,” Hong Kong-based Amnesty International researcher Patrick Poon (潘燊昌) said. “It’s an irrational decision to trust in a group believed to be closer to the people on the ground, even if they don’t know who is behind the fund.”
Ng said that the fund is supported by “members of the public that are incensed by what is being done by police and government.”
“The movement is ongoing and we are using the funds for the stated purpose of humanitarian aid,” she said. “We don’t have any obligation to spend all the money immediately.”
For protesters such as Ventus Lau (劉穎匡), a 26-year-old activist who has been arrested twice during the protests, the debate over financing risks undercutting the wider aims of the movement.
Many demonstrators head to the front lines due to the confidence that others would help them financially if they are arrested, he said.
“It has been our core value that there is no division in this movement,” he said. “Not only Spark, whenever there is any criticism, we feel we should not be criticizing anyone else — at least until final victory.”
Lau was first arrested in August for unlawful assembly at a demonstration he helped organize that later turned violent.
He was detained for 46 hours before a 612 Humanitarian Fund representative showed up with HK$5,000 in bail money.
A couple of weeks later, he was arrested again for his suspected role in the July 1 storming of the Hong Kong Legislative Council building.
Lau said his lawyer plans to apply to the fund to pay for his defense, which could span years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The money raised so far has helped protesters, but it would not be enough to cover all of their legal expenses, he said.
“We take a lot of risks when we go to protests and some people can’t take that risk, so they donate money,” Lau said. “When they watch the news they feel guilty or powerless and feel a heavy duty to do something, so they will trust anyone.”
The biggest funds sprung into action when the anti-extradition bill protests erupted in June and police started arresting demonstrators en masse.
Alongside them grew a separate network, largely online, to pay for things such as helmets, masks, food vouchers and other frontline supplies.
It is trickier to tally those donations since they were arranged through messaging apps or dropped off at demonstrations. The items did not cost much, but were often discarded to avoid arrest.
For many young demonstrators, the funds are an essential lifeline.
Peter To, a 22-year-old frontline protester, said he lost his job after joining too many work strikes and now has no income.
“If I didn’t have this help, I’d be in real trouble and wouldn’t have money to eat,” he said.
The methods for supporting protesters have become increasingly sophisticated, with messaging apps such as Telegram supporting case management systems.
Earlier this month, a poster who said she was 16 asked for HK$1,500 from a group with 4,000 subscribers called “Want Rice, I Pay,” saying her parents would not support her after she was caught sneaking off to demonstrations. Hours after the group’s administrator issued her with case No. 73, she was matched with a donor.
A 19-year-old student surnamed Ling, who regularly goes to demonstrations, described the crucial role played by what she refers to as an online “parent,” who pays for safe houses to sleep in after protests.
“Police will follow protesters back home and arrest them,” she said.
Donors say the need for more financial support is only going to grow larger, especially for the hundreds of protesters who face mounting legal costs.
A female banker in her 30s, surname Leung, who donates monthly to groups including 612 Humanitarian Fund and Spark Alliance, said the lack of transparency around some funds did not bother her.
“It’s not a lot of money and I’m happy as long as I can help people in need,” she said, requesting that she only be identified by her surname for fear of reprisals. “The movement wouldn’t have lasted this long if people didn’t give support.”
Fan collected bags of cash for Spark Alliance at a rally with government approval convened by the Civil Human Rights Front, which has held six major marches since June.
Front vice convener Eric Lai (黎恩灝) said that each one costs more than HK$250,000 to put on, excluding insurance fees, with excess money directed to the 612 Humanitarian Fund.
After the arrests connected to Spark Alliance, Fan directed his ire at the authorities.
“I am more concerned of how the police and government ... suppress the movement more than how Spark Alliance handled the funds,” Fan said. “I am worried those in need for legal aid and in jail would lose one major form of help.”
Additional reporting by Shawna Kwan, Blake Schmidt, Josie Wong, Aaron McNicholas, Natalie Lung and Justin Chin
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