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Human rights under attack in Hong Kong under new national security regime: report

Police with pepper spray outside Cityplaza1 (Studio Incendo/WikiCommons)
August 27, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

A draconian national security law imposed on Hong Kong by the ruling Chinese Communist Party at the beginning of July has ushered in an ever-widening crackdown on peaceful dissent, and a new wave of human rights violations, according to a report from an overseas-based rights group.

Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have deployed the law to step up violations of local people’s human rights and to undermine the city’s rule of law, the Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD) network said in a report published on its website.

“The crackdown … has involved arbitrary arrests of peaceful protesters and pro-independence advocates, media censorship, interference in the democratic election process, and intimidation against overseas activists who fled the city out of fear for retaliation,” the report said. “The National Security Law has been used to legitimize the violation of human rights.”

Beijing’s imposition of the new law on Hong Kong, bypassing the city’s Legislative Council (LegCo), also mandated China’s feared state security police to set up a headquarters in a Hong Kong hotel and empowered Beijing to supervise directly cases considered to be “serious” violations of the law.

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The law also provided for separate national security courts, with judges hand-picked by chief executive Carrie Lam, which lawyers slammed at the time as a serious blow to judicial independence in the city.

“The Hong Kong government is obligated to guarantee freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, association and other civil political rights,” CHRD said, citing international rights covenants and the city’s own Basic Law.

It called for the immediate release of anyone arrested under the law for exercising their civil and political rights.

Slew of arrests

Hong Kong police arrested 10 people on the day the law took effect for displaying leaflets and banners referring to calls for independence for the city.

Five days later, eight people were arrested in Kwun Tong for holding up blank placards in a silent protest. The government warned that a popular slogan of last year’s protest movement—”Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now!”—was now illegal.

On July 29, four members of the pro-independence student group Studentlocalism, which was disbanded before the law came into effect, were arrested on suspicion of “inciting secession.”

This was followed up with the arrest of pro-democracy media magnate Jimmy Lai and a raid by the newly formed national security police on the offices of his newspaper, the Apple Daily.

Three pro-democracy activists—Agnes Chow, Wilson Li, and Andy Li—were detained on the same day.

Days after the law was implemented, public libraries removed books from the shelves including those written by prominent student activist Joshua Wong and pro-democracy legislator Tanya Chan, while Occupy Central movement initiator and law professor Benny Tai lost his job at the University of Hong Kong, the report said.

Hong Kong police have also issued arrest warrants for six pro-democracy activists currently overseas under the new law, including former lawmaker Nathan Law, pro-independence activists Wayne Chan and Honcques Laus, and former U.K. consular official Simon Cheng, who was detained and tortured after being arrested in Hong Kong by Chinese police.

“The National Security Law has had a profound chilling effect in the short nearly two months of its implementation in Hong Kong,” CHRD’s report found. “The law is particularly potent in suffocating the free expression characteristic of Hong Kong’s vibrant civil society.”

Protesting despite law

A protester who gave only a nickname David said he had already seen police violence at close hand during last year’s protests, but that he plans to continue his activism in spite of the draconian new law.

“I have seen countless demonstrators being violently dealt with by the Hong Kong government and the police, which I hate to see,” David told RFA in a recent interview. “As a student, I think it is time to speak out.”

“I think we have to speak out, and not let the government and the police hurt our citizens … the more they monitor and try to intimidate me, the more I have to keep coming out [in protest],” he said.

The law bans secessionist, subversive, and terrorist words and deeds, as well as collusion with foreign forces to interfere in Hong Kong’s internal affairs, charges which carry a maximum sentence of imprisonment for life.

Charges of “collusion with foreign powers” appeared in the law after repeated claims from Beijing that last year’s anti-government and pro-democracy protest movement was instigated by “hostile overseas forces.”

The law has been criticized by foreign governments as being in breach of Beijing’s promise to maintain the city’s freedom and autonomy.

Rights groups say the vaguely worded offenses, which carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment, and cover speech or actions anywhere in the world, will enable the authorities to continue to crack down on any form of peaceful criticism, active dissent, or political opposition.