(New York) – The Chinese and local authorities’ latest assault on Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement amid the Covid-19 crisis signifies Beijing’s escalating efforts to impose direct control over the city’s governance, violating basic rights, Human Rights Watch said today.
On April 18, 2020, the Hong Kong police arrested 15 prominent pro-democracy leaders for “organizing and participating in unlawful assemblies” during the widespread protests in 2019. This followed several days in which the Chinese government’s representative in Hong Kong reinterpreted Hong Kong’s effective constitution to interfere in domestic issues.
“The arrest of Hong Kong’s best-known democracy advocates on dubious charges and the effective rewriting of the Basic Law has all the hallmarks of the Chinese Communist Party’s governance style,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. “Beijing appears to be exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to inflict more body blows to Hong Kong people’s struggle for their human rights.”
On April 13, the China Liaison Office (CLO) and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Beijing’s representative offices in the city, criticized pro-democracy members of Hong Kong’s semi-democratic Legislative Council (LegCo) for their delay in selecting a new chairperson for an internal committee. The statements threatened the elected legislators with “serious consequences” for their “dereliction of duties.” This marked an unprecedented and high-profile interference into Hong Kong affairs by the two offices.
Under the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangements, Hong Kong is guaranteed “a high degree of autonomy” over all issues other than foreign affairs and defense. Article 22 of the city’s functional constitution, the Basic Law, further states, “No department of the Central People’s Government … may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own in accordance with this Law.”
On April 15, Luo Huining, the liaison office’s new director, said in a video address that Hong Kong needs to implement national security legislation “as soon as possible.” Proposed legislation to implement article 23 of the Basic Law, which empowers Hong Kong to enact security legislation, has been deeply unpopular among Hong Kong people for two decades, and they have fended off such measures through massive demonstrations.
On April 17, the liaison office defended its statements, saying that it and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Offices are not bound by article 22 of the Basic Law. The office asserted that they are not “department[s] of the Central People’s Government” as stated in article 22, but rather “agencies authorized by the central government with responsibilities to handle Hong Kong affairs.” The liaison office’s reinterpretation of the Basic Law – which it is not empowered to do – is contrary to the Basic Law. The Basic Law does not give the two offices any supervisory powers over affairs administered by the Hong Kong government.
A document issued by the Hong Kong government in 2007 also states that the liaison office was established under article 22. After it claimed this new position, the Hong Kong government published three statements within hours, first contradicting the liaison office’s statement, but then agreeing that the representative offices are not bodies established under article 22.
The 15 pro-democracy leaders arrested on April 18 were charged for their involvement in democracy protests on August 18, October 1, and October 20, 2019. They include Martin Lee, an 81-year-old barrister and founder of the pro-democracy Democratic Party; Margaret Ng, barrister and former legislator; Jimmy Lai, a media tycoon; and Raphael Wong, chairman the League of Social Democrats, another leading pro-democracy party. All 15 were released on bail, and their trials are slated to begin on May 18 at the Eastern Magistrates’ Court.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee has criticized Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance, which requires organizers to obtain from the police a “notice of no objection” for demonstrations involving more than 30 people seven days in advance. The UN body said the ordinance “may facilitate excessive restriction” on the right to freedom of assembly.
The police denied permission for the October protests at issue, while approving only an assembly – not a march – for the August protest, even though the applicant organization, Civil Human Rights Front, had a record of organizing peaceful mass protests. In defiance of the undue police restrictions on freedom of assembly, hundreds of thousands of people participated in all three gatherings. These protests proceeded mostly peacefully, especially in the first few hours. Although some protesters damaged pro-Beijing establishments, police cleared the protesters, often using excessive force.
The Chinese government’s recent actions reflect its escalating crackdown on those supporting Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests. Between June and December, at least two million people in the city of seven million protested, initially over proposed legal amendments that would allow Hong Kong authorities to send criminal suspects back to China, where they face an unfair criminal justice system.
These protests evolved to express broad grievances over the Beijing and Hong Kong governments’ repeated violations of Hong Kong people’s rights, which were guaranteed to them when the city’s sovereignty was transferred from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
Since June 2019, the authorities have arrested nearly 8,000 demonstrators, yet they have failed to prosecute any police officers credibly alleged to have used excessive force. Some judges have expressed concerns about political influence in the judiciary. Government restrictions imposed on candidates and political parties will severely compromise the Legislative Council elections slated for September. Over half of current pro-democracy LegCo members already face criminal charges. Since 2016, Beijing and Hong Kong authorities have disqualified pro-democracy figures from running for seats on LegCo or unseated them after they were elected.
Governments should unequivocally press the Hong Kong authorities to drop the charges against the 15 advocates, to cease invoking article 23 in violation of basic rights, and to ensure the rights to stand for and vote in LegCo elections. They should also consider sanctions against mainland and Hong Kong authorities who are responsible for serious human rights violations in the territory.
“Beijing seems to be banking on the Covid-19 crisis to keep other governments silent,” Richardson said. “But the Chinese government’s repression of human rights that contributed to the pandemic is on full display in Hong Kong, and governments need to take strong measures in response.”
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