(New York) – The Chinese central government and Hong Kong authorities should not impede peaceful protests or other means of peaceful expression, Human Rights Watch said today. China’s top legislature is set to formally announce its decision on Hong Kong’s political reform on August 31, 2014, and the expected announcement is likely to trigger large protests.
On August 31, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) is expected to announce its decision on Hong Kong’s political reform. According to sources cited on August 28 in Hong Kong newspapers, the draft decision will impose a stringent screening mechanism that effectively bars candidates the central government dislikes from nomination for chief executive.
“Beijing is trying to present as 'democratic' a process over which it will retain complete control,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “It shouldn’t be surprised if this prompts real outrage in Hong Kong, and it shouldn’t compound that mistake by preventing people from expressing their views peacefully.”
The draft decision will essentially replicate the currently rigged Election Committee of the Chief Executive, consisting mostly of Beijing supporters. Candidates will have to get more than half of the committee members’ endorsement before they can be placed on a ballot for the general election. The decision will shatter the promise of election of the chief executive through universal suffrage under article 45 of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law.
Organizers of the activist movement Occupy Central with Love and Peace have said that if the Standing Committee’s final decision effectively rules out genuine universal suffrage, they will stage a protest on August 31. Organizers have said they intend to apply for police approval for the August 31 protest, as required by Hong Kong law.
Another protest is planned for September 1, when the Standing Committee’s deputy head and Basic Law Committee Chair Li Fei is scheduled to visit Hong Kong to explain the decision.
Occupy Central has also said that together with other pro-democracy groups it will organize ongoing actions through September, potentially culminating in a large-scale, nonviolent sit-in that will likely block traffic in Hong Kong’s political and financial district sometime in September. In its manifesto, Occupy Central has pledged that all of its activities will be nonviolent.
The right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in the Hong Kong Bill of Rights, as well as in the Basic Law and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), an international treaty that applies to Hong Kong. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and that are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety and public order. International standards also require law enforcement officials to avoid the use of force if possible, and if force is used, to restrict it to only the minimum absolutely necessary to protect human life and safety under the circumstances.
Article 45 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law states that the chief executive, who until now has been chosen by a committee composed mostly of Beijing supporters, will be selected by “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” It also states that after 2007, Hong Kong could move toward this goal by amending the Basic Law. However, the central and Hong Kong governments have repeatedly backtracked on fulfilling this promise. In 2007, the central government again ruled out democracy for Hong Kong, saying that universal suffrage “may be” in store for the chief executive and Legislative Council elections in 2017 and 2020, respectively.
The standing committee decision comes at a time of other developments that raise deep concern about central government and Hong Kong authorities’ respect for basic human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong.
On August 28, 2014, the anti-corruption agency ICAC raided the media owner Jimmy Lai’s home in connection with an investigation of his donations to pro-democracy legislators. Lai and his publications are known for their criticism of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, a rare stance in recent years as many Hong Kong newspapers have become muted in their reporting on China due to increasing censorship.
The investigation was triggered by complaints from pro-Beijing politicians after information about these donations was stolen by hackers from Lai’s computer systems and leaked to the media. Lai’s company, Next Media, reported the hacking attack to the police, but the status of the investigation is unclear. Next Media staff members have in the past been subject to physical abuse and threats.
On August 25, Macau police arrested five organizers of an unofficial referendum or “citizens’ poll” on democracy that is modeled after a similar referendum by Occupy Central in Hong Kong. Macau police closed all five polling places in Macau, claiming that the group violated personal data laws. The five were later released. Police have said they are continuing to investigate four of the arrested pollsters for violating personal data laws and the fifth for refusing to obey police orders.
In July, Hong Kong’s House News, one of Hong Kong’s most popular independent media outlets known for its support of Occupy Central, closed after its owner released a letter saying he was “fearful” and citing political pressure from China.
In early July, Hong Kong police briefly detained over 500 participants and organizers for their role in peaceful protests that called on the Hong Kong and central governments to deliver genuine democracy. The protesters were detained on suspicion of a variety of charges – most for participating in, assisting, and organizing “unlawful assembly.” All were later released. Police said they will reserve the right to press charges against the organizers and alleged leaders.
“Threats and intimidation will serve little to dampen Hong Kong people’s desire for genuine democracy, but they will tarnish Hong Kong authorities’ reputation for respecting the right of peaceful expression,” Richardson said. “The promise of the Basic Law was to expand democracy, not limit it, and it is time that Beijing fulfills it without delay.”