The people of Hong Kong have endured much in 2020, especially since midyear when Beijing imposed its controversial National Security Law that saw the corrosion of human rights in the semi-autonomous territory.
The National Security Law was passed by China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on June 30. It came into force at 11 p.m. Hong Kong time on that date, only an hour before the 23rd anniversary of the city’s transfer to China from British rule. The law was implemented after a series of large-scale pro-democracy protests that occurred in the city beginning March 2019.
National Security Law undermines Hong Kong’s freedoms
A report, focusing on human rights concerns in Hong Kong has been released by the U.S. Congressional-Executive Commission on China; a body that consists of nine U.S. senators, nine members of the House of Representatives, and five senior administration officials appointed by the U.S. president.
The commission’s report outlines what it describes as the rapid deterioration of human rights in the city since the law’s passing.
“Twenty-seven countries expressed concerns that the law undermined Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy as China committed in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration,” said the commission’s report published November 4.
“The new law likewise caused concerns for human rights violations. As of October 2020, nine countries, including the United States, suspended their extradition treaties with Hong Kong,” it said.
The report examines the law’s compatibility with international human rights standards as written and as applied.
“As written, the law contains vaguely defined offenses that are inconsistent with the principle of legal certainty,” the report said. “As applied, the law has enabled the Hong Kong government to arrest political dissidents, assert jurisdiction over overseas activities, and directly or indirectly regulate political speech and activities.”
The report pointed out that the Chinese government designed the law to “safeguard national security.” The law criminalizes “secession,” “subversion,” “terrorist activities,” and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.”
The report added that the law necessitates that Hong Kong’s chief executive (currently Carrie Lam) select judges in national security cases, and under some circumstances confers to China’s central government jurisdiction. It further stated that the law orders the Hong Kong government to “strengthen propaganda, guidance, supervision, and administration” over “schools, social groups, media, and the Internet.”
In response, the report noted that seven UN experts released a joint letter on September 2 where they said the law “implicates both serious concerns of legality as well as undue limitations on freedom of opinion, expression and peaceful assembly.”
Among the range of issues raised by the UN experts were that definitions of secession and subversion in the law may contravene the principle of legal certainty because they “are broad and imprecise and do not indicate precisely what kind of individual conduct would fall within their ambit,” the report quoted the experts as saying.
In addition, “[s]ubversion is generally understood as a ‘political crime’ . . ., deployed to punish individuals for what they think (or what they are thought to think) rather than on the basis of action or activities which pose a defined criminal threat,” the experts said.
The report stated that the law’s definition of terrorist activities did not conform to the UN Security Council’s definition, which the experts said “requires intentionality to cause death or serious bodily harm and the act must be committed to provoke a state of terror.”
A part of the law, which allows certain cases to be transferred to mainland China, is problematic because the Chinese government is not a party to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which protects due process rights during the criminal process, the report pointed out.
The commission’s report also raised concerns over human rights violations committed by the Hong Kong Government, especially in areas related to political freedoms and freedom of assembly.
“The National Security Law was enacted one day before July 1, 2020, the anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong and a day when large numbers of Hong Kong residents join marches demanding political reform and universal suffrage every year,” the report said.
“In 2020, thousands of people joined a march despite not having received permission from police, which resulted in approximately 370 participants being arrested, with 10 facing charges under the National Security Law.”
The report went on to quote a United Nations spokesperson who said that “[w]e are alarmed that arrests are already being made under the law with immediate effect, when there is not full information and understanding of the scope of the offences.”
The commission’s report highlighted how the Hong Kong Government has asserted jurisdiction over political activities overseas.
“On July 29, 2020, police arrested Tony Chung Hon-lam, convener of the disbanded political group Studentlocalism, as well as three other group members, Yanni Ho, Ho Nok-hang, and Chan Wai-yin. The arrests were made by the new Department for Safeguarding National Security, which was established pursuant to Article 16 of the National Security Law,” said the report.
The report went on to further say that a representative from the department said that the four individuals were facing charges of “secession” and “inciting secession,” based on social media posts that advocated for Hong Kong independence.
“Although the group responsible for the posts (Initiative Independence Party) reportedly was organized by overseas students, the spokesperson cited Articles 36 through 38 of the National Security Law, which give Hong Kong police jurisdiction over cases involving acts committed outside of Hong Kong and those committed by non-Hong Kong residents,” the report said.
The commission’s report likewise pointed out how there was interference in Legislative Council (LegCo) election, which was meant to be held on September 6.
The report said that election officials invalidated the nomination of 12 individuals for election.
“The stated reasons supporting the disqualifications included soliciting intervention by foreign governments in Hong Kong affairs, opposing the National Security Law, and advocating for changing Hong Kong’s status as a special administrative region,” the report said.
“The disqualified nominees have been described by media sources as ‘pro-democracy’ and included incumbent LegCo members, district councilors, and activists. The Hong Kong government, however, denied political censorship.”
The Hong Kong government on July 31 postponed the LegCo election by one year, citing public health concerns amid the new coronavirus pandemic.
“The Hong Kong Bar Association expressed ‘serious doubts about the legal and evidential basis of the Government’s decision’ and further noted that the Basic Law specified a LegCo term to be four years and that the length of postponement permissible under the law should not exceed 14 days,” said the report.
“Some observers said that the disqualifications and the postponement was the government’s reaction to the pro-democracy camp’s overwhelming success in district council elections in November 2019, with activist Joshua Wong (who was among those disqualified) calling the measures government interference,” the report said.
Suppression of protests
The report said that thousands of people joined a march on September 6 to protest the postponement of the LegCo election.
“The Hong Kong government, in addition to characterizing the assemblies as unlawful, highlighted the fact that the protesters were chanting ‘slogans connoting Hong Kong independence,’” said the report, which further cited how the police conducted widespread stops and searches and arrested nearly 300 people, mostly for “unauthorized assembly.”
The report said that a police officer told The Washington Post that “mass arrests are a tactic frequently deployed to scare pro-democracy protesters and their sympathizers and to deter further protests.”
Crackdown on pro-democracy advocates and media
The report gave some details on what it described as a crackdown on pro-democracy advocates and media.
“On August 10, 2020, police arrested 10 democracy advocates and news media executives on a range of criminal charges, including ‘collusion with external elements’ under the National Security Law,” the report said.
In a raid on the office building of Next Digital, some 200 police officers seized 25 boxes of materials, the report said. Founded by Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, Next Digital is the parent company of the pro-democracy news outlet Apple Daily. Lai was among the Next Digital executives arrested by the police.
“Police blocked several media outlets — including Reuters, Associated Press, and Agence France-Presse — from attending a press briefing, allowing only “local, relatively well-established” outlets that “would not obstruct police work,” said the report.
The report quoted the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, which condemned the police’s actions, saying that giving police discretion “to decide who counts as a legitimate journalist, will mark the end of press freedom in Hong Kong.”
Police also arrested Jimmy Lai’s sons as well as three democracy advocates, which included Agnes Chow, the report said adding that six overseas activists were placed on a wanted list in connection with their political activists.
The report included the 12 Hong Kongers intercepted by China’s coast guard on August 23 when they were allegedly fleeing to Taiwan via a speedboat to seek asylum. “As of September 18, Chinese authorities held the detainees at the Yantian District PSB Detention Center in Shenzhen municipality, Guangdong province,” the report said. “Authorities reportedly denied legal counsel visits and pressured lawyers hired by family members to withdraw representation, which resulted in at least five withdrawals.”
Attack on academic freedoms, library books pulled
The report said after the implementation of the law, the Hong Kong government directly or indirectly regulated the political content of books and restricted speech in schools. “In addition, a university terminated a professor of law in connection with his political activities, a move that was criticized for undermining academic freedom,” the report said.
The report added that library books have been pulled because of the law, while political content in textbooks has become subject to review.
“In early July 2020, books written by activists, including those by activist Joshua Wong and lawmaker Tanya Chan, began to disappear from libraries in Hong Kong, according to online records,” said the report.
“In August 2020, media sources reported that new editions of liberal studies textbooks had cut or deleted discussions on topics including the 1989 Tiananmen protests, separation of powers, and the demand for universal suffrage.”
The report said that earlier in September 2019, the Education Bureau instituted “professional consultancy services” to review liberal studies textbooks in light of alleged concerns that some teachers did not present political issues in an “impartial” manner.
“While publishers were not required to use the services, and there was not a recommended textbook list, the Education Bureau disseminated to schools “the requirements and criteria for selecting learning and teaching resources” and required teachers “to select quality learning and teaching resources which are in line with the curriculum aims and objectives.”
The report said that the Education Bureau put restrictions on political speech in schools.
“In a written reply to a question submitted by the LegCo representative for the Education constituency, dated July 8, 2020, Secretary for Education Kevin Yeung said that ‘[schools] should not be used as a venue for anyone to express their political demands’ and further instructed that schools must ban students from singing the protest anthem ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ and should dissuade students from engaging in activities that would ‘carry strong political messages,’” the report said.
“On July 28, 2020, the University of Hong Kong terminated associate professor of law Benny Tai Yiu-ting. In reaction, international observers criticized the termination as repression of academic freedom,” the report said.
“The university’s decision came shortly after the Chinese government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong criticized Tai’s role in organizing ‘primary elections’ (which were a de facto opinion poll) ahead of the September Legislative Council elections,” the report said.
In 2019, Tai was sentenced to one year and 4 months in prison on public nuisance charges for organizing a series of peaceful protests in 2014 — known as the “Umbrella Movement” — he was later granted bail pending appeal, the report said.
The commission’s report also stated the Hong Kong Government had intervened in private prosecutions, with Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng making court filings to intervene in two private cases.
The report said that such action undermined the rule of law, as well as the right of private citizens to pursue criminal prosecutions.
“The two cases were initiated by Democratic Party lawmaker Ted Hui Chi-fung; one against a police officer who shot at a protester and another against a taxi driver for ramming protesters with his vehicle, both of which took place during the ongoing protests in 2019,” the report said.
The report said that Secretary for Justice sought to take over the prosecutions with the aim of withdrawing the summonses against the defendants.
“Regarding the case against the police officer, Hui said that the Department of Justice did not provide any legal basis for its request nor was the request based on any investigation,” the report said.
“On August 26, 2020, police arrested Hui, along with another lawmaker, Lam Cheuk-ting, on grounds that they joined a July 2019 protest in which they reportedly were acting as mediators between police and protesters,” it added.
The report focused on events from when the law was enacted until September of 2020.
Watch this video from China Uncensored on Hong Kong’s national security law.