(New York) – Chinese authorities should immediately release activists detained in China for peacefully voicing support for the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, Human Rights Watch said today. Authorities should also cease harassing activists, students, and their families for sharing protest-related information on social media, and allow mainland Chinese to participate in peaceful protests in Hong Kong.
“Mainland authorities fear that the protests in Hong Kong could inspire challenges to the government, prompting Beijing to suppress any signs of support for the Hong Kong protesters,” said Sophie Richardson, China director. “Mainlanders’ support for democracy shows that this is a value shared by people on both sides of the border.”
Since early June 2019, massive street demonstrations in Hong Kong, initially about proposed changes to the laws that would allow extraditions to mainland China, have evolved into a movement for universal suffrage and police accountability. Mainland authorities have strictly censored related news and launched a disinformation campaign that falsely frames Hong Kong’s protests as a violent and extreme separatist movement instigated by foreign governments.
Mainland authorities since June have detained and harassed dozens of activists and netizens who showed support for the protests, and warned students and others not to participate in them.
Mainland activists who remain detained in relation to the Hong Kong protests include:
- Quan Shixin: On July 25, Beijing authorities detained Quan Shixin, accusing her of “picking quarrels.” Quan was formally arrested a month later. She had criticized the Chinese government and expressed support for the Hong Kong protests on Twitter. In September 2018, Quan was detained for 10 days for her tweets criticizing Chinese Communist Party leaders.
- Ba Luning: On August 14, police in Shandong province detained Ba Luning on suspicion of “picking quarrels.” Ba had sent messages to private WeChat group chats, voicing his support for the Hong Kong protests.
- Lai Rifu: On September 15, Guangzhou police detained Lai Rifu on suspicion of “picking quarrels.” Lai had earlier shared “Glory to Hong Kong,” a song composed during the protests that has become the unofficial anthem of the pro-democracy movement, on his WeChat and Facebook accounts.
- Chen Yunfei: On September 19, police in Sichuan province detained Chen Yunfei, an artist and activist, on unreported charges. Chen had in days prior spoken to foreign media and tweeted about the protests. Chen had been released from prison in March after serving four years for his social media posts critical of the Chinese government and his various performance art projects.
Under article 293 of China’s Criminal Law, the crime of “picking quarrels” carries a sentence of up to five years in prison for first-time offenders. The offense is broadly defined to include online behavior and is frequently used by authorities to criminalize peaceful criticism of the Chinese government.
The authorities have detained for days and released an unreported number of activists and netizens for their Hong Kong protest-related speech. In August, Guangdong authorities detained activist Hu Haibo for 15 days after he returned from Hong Kong, where he participated in the protests. Police had earlier followed him to Hong Kong, a friend of Hu’s said.
Beijing-based artist Hou Zhihui was detained in August for 37 days after he posted on Weibo criticism of Fu Guohao, a reporter for the Chinese state media who was beaten by protesters at Hong Kong’s airport. In September, Hangzhou-based democracy activist Mao Qingxiang was detained for seven days for his WeChat posts about Hong Kong.
Police across China have also harassed and summoned for questioning numerous activists, intellectuals, and regular social media users. Chen Simin, a Hunan-based activist, received daily phone calls from the police after he posted online selfies of himself covering his right eye, a gesture of solidarity for a Hong Kong woman who suffered an eye injury during a clash between the police and protesters. After Beijing-based human rights lawyer Chen Qiushi posted videos of himself at protest scenes in Hong Kong, the police called and forced him to return to the mainland by threatening his family and friends. Chen’s Weibo account was also removed.
Human Rights Watch has also learned that Chinese authorities have warned mainland students studying in Hong Kong not to participate in the protests. While in the mainland for summer break, police forced some students to sign pledges stating that they would not go to the protests upon returning to Hong Kong. Some received phone calls and text messages from the police ordering them to stay away from “illegal mass protests and street violence” and to “love the country, love Hong Kong.” Some students’ parents received warnings as well.
Chinese authorities have also harassed family members in China of mainland students in Australia for their activities supporting the Hong Kong protests, the media reported.
Previously, Chinese courts had handed down harsh sentences to a number of Chinese activists for peacefully voicing their support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014.
“Mainland activists and netizens have braved great risks to show solidarity with Hong Kong people protesting for universal human rights,” Richardson said. “Governments around the world should support them by speaking out for basic rights and against Chinese government repression.”