Sunday, June 23, 2024

China Continues to Erode Democratic Institutions and Human Rights in Hong Kong

Washington, DC – In its recent Hong Kong Policy Act Report, the State Department documents the diminishing freedoms in Hong Kong as the People’s Republic of China (PRC) tightens its rule.

In the past year, the PRC has continued to break down Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, pressured the judiciary, and stifled academic, cultural, and press freedoms said Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement. 

This year marks 25 years since Hong Kong was handed over to the People’s Republic of China. The differences between Hong Kong and cities in mainland China are shrinking due to ongoing repression from the PRC.

The report documents actions taken by leaders in Hong Kong and the PRC that have contributed to the erosion of democratic institutions and human rights and stifled freedom of press and expression. These policies have far-reaching implications for all aspects of life in the city, including international business and financial communities.

Sweeping arrests of Hong Kong residents, and the forced closure of institutions including Apple Daily and the June 4 Museum, emphasize the scope of these “deeply damaging changes.” In response to heightened risk and uncertainty, Some international firms in Hong Kong have shifted their operations elsewhere. “Beijing will ultimately force many of the city’s best and brightest to flee, tarnishing Hong Kong’s reputation and weakening its competitiveness. Hong Kong’s position as a free, global financial center will continue to suffer as a result,” said Secretary Blinken.

Hong Kong had a remarkably free press but slipped from 18th place (2002) in the World Press Freedom Index to 80th in 2021.

The National Security Law (NSL) imposed by the PRC on Hong Kong last year has led to the repression of at least 12 journalists and press freedom defenders, including Apple Daily Founder Jimmy Lai. 

In December 2021, National Security Department police arrested seven people associated with the pro-democracy online media outlet Stand News on suspicion of “conspiracy to print or distribute seditious materials” under a colonial-era sedition law. Police raided the media outlet’s office, arrested staff, seized journalistic materials, and froze its assets. Stand News subsequently announced it was ceasing operations and laying off its staff. Other independent media outlets also announced their closure following the raid on Stand News, with some stating publicly that journalism had become too dangerous in Hong Kong. Citizen News closed in January 2022, for example, citing concerns over the safety of its staff.

In a report published in 2019 and entitled China’s Pursuit of a New World Media Order, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) illustrated how China tries to suppress journalism and instead make it a propaganda tool. 

“If China continues its frantic race backwards, Chinese citizens may lose hope to one day see press freedom established in their country, and the Beijing regime may succeed in imposing its anti-model domestically and abroad,” says the RSF Secretary General, Christophe Deloire, who calls on democracies to “identify all appropriate strategies to dissuade the Beijing regime from pursuing its repressive policies and to support all Chinese citizens who love their country and want to defend the right to information.”

PRC and Hong Kong officials and state-controlled media repeatedly criticized the Hong Kong Journalists Association accusing it of potential NSL violations. In July 2021, the association released a report titled “Freedom in Tatters,” documenting the erosion of press freedoms in Hong Kong. PRC officials criticized the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong (FCC) on multiple occasions, including in November 2021, after the FCC published the results of a member survey showing that respondents believed the NSL caused Hong Kong’s media environment to change for the worse, and in December 2021 after the FCC released a statement expressing concern about the shuttering of Stand News.

Hong Kong authorities have arrested and charged local reporters for using publicly available governmental databases to investigate incidents during the 2019 protests. Hong Kong authorities also implemented measures limiting public access to multiple public government databases, most notably the Hong Kong Companies Registry, including requiring users accessing the Registry to disclose their names and identification numbers, and by restricting the information on company directors and addresses available in the Registry, with no exceptions available to journalists.

Several reports allege Hong Kong police asked internet providers to block access to certain websites, including those associated with the pro-democracy movement and a museum on the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Hong Kong authorities refused to confirm the reports. In June 2021, an Israel-based web hosting company briefly removed a website associated with the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement after Hong Kong police sent the company a letter claiming the website contained messages “likely to constitute offenses endangering national security.” The company subsequently reinstated the website.

Some activists claimed authorities monitored their email and internet use. Messages posted on Facebook, Telegram, and (a local forum website) led to arrests under the NSL and the Public Order Ordinance, leading to self-censorship by individuals and organizations.  

Hong Kong law protects freedom of assembly, but authorities violated this right. By law, organizers of public meetings and demonstrations are required to apply for a “letter of no objection” from the police, but the police only issued these letters to groups affiliated with the PRC or Hong Kong governments. 

In June 2021, for the second consecutive year, police refused approval for an annual vigil commemorating the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre victims, citing COVID-19-related social distancing concerns.

In April 2021, a Hong Kong court convicted veteran pro-democracy activists Martin Lee, Margaret Ng, Jimmy Lai, and Lee Cheuk-yan of unauthorized assembly for participating in a nonviolent August 2019 protest. Authorities arrested 33 people and filed charges against 30 for commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre in 2020 or 2021. In September 2021, seven pro-democracy activists were sentenced to up to 16 months in jail for their role in an “unauthorized assembly” at the height of the anti-government protests in 2019.

Hong Kong law enforcement continued to use a provision of the NSL to seize travel documents from democracy activists and opposition politicians arrested under the NSL, even without filing charges. Hong Kong prosecutors also asked courts to confiscate travel documents or enforce travel bans for activists, protesters, and politicians on bail while facing charges for political activity and expression crimes, including nonviolent participation in anti-government protests, under both the NSL and other statutes.

In June 2021, after the closure of Apple Daily, Hong Kong authorities arrested a senior editor at Hong Kong International Airport. This editor had not previously been charged, and credible media reports indicated Hong Kong authorities maintained an exit ban “watchlist” of residents who would be intercepted if they attempted to leave Hong Kong.

Hong Kong authorities also enacted an immigration bill amendment that went into effect in August 2021. The amendment authorized Hong Kong authorities to bar anyone, without a court order, from entering or leaving Hong Kong.

State-owned and state-affiliated media have been actively conducting disinformation activities in Hong Kong. The disinformation campaigns aim to paint “foreign forces” as fomenters of unrest in Hong Kong and take attention away from the demands of people in Hong Kong and their criticism of the PRC or Hong Kong governments. Mainland China-based actors have resorted to coercive measures to intimidate and silence pro-democracy speech online, including doxing and malicious cyber activities.

In September 2021, the Wikimedia Foundation announced that, in an “unprecedented” move, it had banned seven Wikipedia users and stripped an additional twelve users of administrator privileges after media reports revealed a group of mainland China-based editors had been removing content contributed by Hong Kong residents, rewriting articles about Hong Kong from a pro-Beijing perspective, and threatening to dox pro-democracy Hong Kong editors. In November 2021, Google’s Threat Analysis Group published evidence that a “likely state-backed” actor used a watering hole cyber method against a Hong Kong media outlet and prominent pro-democracy labor and political group.


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