Joint Statement: The International Community Must Halt Rapid Decline of Rights in Hong KongComments Off on Joint Statement: The International Community Must Halt Rapid Decline of Rights in Hong Kong
(Chinese Human Rights Defenders, June 30, 2021) On this July 1st, which marks the 24th anniversary of the Hong Kong handover, the one-year anniversary of the enactment of the HK National Security Law, and the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, we urge the international community to take effective actions to halt the rapid decline of civil-political liberties in Hong Kong at the behest of Chinese authorities.
When promoting the passage of the National Security Law (NSL), the Chinese government promised that the law would only target a minority of “troublemakers” who posed an “imminent danger” to national security. Since the law has gone into effect, however, authorities have used it to drastically curtail freedom of expression and other human rights far beyond what international human rights law permits.
One major target of the Chinese government’s campaign has been HK’s free press. On June 24, the city’s largest independent and pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily published its last edition. The board decided to cease operations after Hong Kong authorities froze $2.3 million USD worth of the newspaper’s assets and locked its bank accounts, thus preventing the paper from paying vendors and its staff.
The Security Secretary John Lee charged Apple Daily with being a “tool” to endanger national security. The Hong Kong government has accused the paper of publishing approximately 100 videos or articles that are suspected of violating the National Security Law while refusing to specify which videos and articles.
Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai is currently serving a 14-month sentence for participating in democracy protests in August 2019 while facing a host of other charges. Five editors have been arrested under the NSL, and 500 police officers carried out a raid on the paper’s offices on June 17th, seizing computers and other records. Since the raid, opinion columnist Li Ping and editorial writer Fung Wai-Kong have also been arrested under the NSL, the latter stopped at the airport while he tried to leave for the UK.
Shutting down the city’s most popular Chinese language newspaper and detaining its staff is the most obvious and emblematic violation of the right to freedom of expression in Hong Kong today. Yet, there have been a whole range of other human rights violations that underscore just how dramatically the situation has worsened over the last year:
- On June 27, just three days after the closure of Apple Daily, Stand News announced that it would take down all of its opinion articles written before May as a way to reduce risk in the changed media environment under the new National Security Law. It also said that it would stop taking new donors and suspend online payments.
- According to journalist Oiwan Lam, an anonymous threat was sent to Apple Daily, just before its closure and similar threats have been sent to other independent news outlets in Hong Kong, like Stand News. These threats include a list of “names of the company’s board of directors and staff members, including part-timers”—information not readily accessible to the public. This is obviously a move to intimidate the journalists in light of the wave of arrests at Apple Daily.
- The HK government appointed new leadership at RTHK, Hong Kong’s TV and radio public broadcaster, which has subsequently instituted drastic changes that have undermined the RTHK’s reputation as a serious journalistic outlet. Some of these changes include: suspending a producer of an award-winning documentary investigating mob violence against protesters in 2019, firing the journalist Nabela Qoser, who had asked critical questions of government officials, taking down old videos of news and opinion shows from Youtube, taking news shows off the air, firing three hosts of a satire radio show, and adding a new show hosted by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam: “Get to Know the Election Committee Subsectors”.
- Internet censorship has suddenly become an issue of major importance as Hong Kong authorities have started to erect their own “Great Firewall” by blocking overseas websites such as the “2021 Hong Kong Charter”—a website run by Nathan Law and others meant to unite overseas Hong Kongers.
- Academic freedom at universities has become severely constrained. A report in the Atlantic noted that photo exhibitions have been cancelled, academic debates have been modified, and students have reported faculty members to a government-run “tip line” about potential national security violations.
- The press freedom crackdown has also extended to media sources: pro-democracy politician Claudia Mo was denied bail for comments she made on WhatsApp to the BBC and the New York Times. The judge said she had made comments about the “loss of human rights and freedom” in the messages.
- The Hong Kong Immigration Department in August 2020 denied a work visa to journalist Aaron McNicholas for the Hong Kong Free Press. The Hong Kong Foreign Correspondents’ Club has said that journalists have been experiencing “highly unusual” visa issues.
- Serious attacks on media critical of the Chinese government have also been perpetrated by those outside of government. The printing presses of Epoch Times, an independent news outlet affiliated with the Falun Gong spiritual movement, were destroyed with sledgehammers by unidentified persons thought to be gang members, and in a separate incident, one of its reporters was attacked by a man with a baseball bat in the street.
- In mainland China, two lawyers, Lu Siwei and Ren Quanniu, were punished by authorities by having their licenses revoked in early 2021 after they represented two of the 12 Hong Kong activists arrested at sea by Chinese authorities while trying to flee persecution and detained on the mainland. The retaliation against mainland lawyers who carried out their professional duties in cases involving Hong Kongers is particularly ominous given that Articles 55 and 56 allow for the Central People’s Government to designate mainland legal bodies – the Supreme People’s Procuratorate and the Supreme People’s Court – to exercise jurisdiction under certain circumstances.
These and many other incidents indicate that the “red lines” in Hong Kong are shifting quickly, and no one can say for certain whether they will be the next victims of human rights violations sooner or later.
This lack of clarity, created by the shifting red lines in the sand, may be precisely the point – to leave journalists and critics in fear and rein them in line with the new authoritarian order. Chief Executive Carrie Lam who, in response to a question about the closure of Apple Daily and how journalists could avoid violating the law, claimed that the law was “very well defined” and that “normal journalistic work would not endanger national security”, without defining what “normal journalistic work” entails.
The UN human rights experts had issued an stern warning about the dangers of the then-draft National Security Law just days before it passed last year. The UN experts urged authorities to withdraw the law based on the Hong Kong government’s human rights obligations, including under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). The experts said that the law, if enacted, would “…introduce poorly defined crimes that would easily be subject to abuse and repression, including at the hands of China’s national security organs, which for the first time would be enabled to establish ‘agencies’ in Hong Kong ‘when needed’.”
Although Beijing seems impervious to international condemnation and sanctions, it is incumbent on the international community to continue to closely monitor the human rights situation in Hong Kong and continue to speak out as the situation worsens. International human rights organizations must hold the Hong Kong government accountable for violating its human rights treaty obligations.
We call on the international community to take the following actions:
- The Human Rights Committee to recognize the urgency of the human rights situation in Hong Kong and schedule a full review of the implementation of the ICCPR at the earliest possible date.
- Building off what the nearly 50 UN human rights experts recommended last year, the Human Rights Council (HRC) should take all appropriate measure to monitor Chinese human rights practices. These measures should include holding a special session at the HRC to assess human rights practices in China, including in Hong Kong, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Tibetan populated regions. A special impartial and independent monitoring mechanism should also be established.
- The Assistant Secretary-General should issue a specific statement reiterating to the Chinese government that the NSL cannot be used to criminalize engagement with the United Nations.
- All states should prioritize addressing human rights with China, including the situation in Hong Kong.
The dramatic reversal of human rights safeguards in a city once known for its vibrant freedom of expression, press, and rule of law further blights the Communist Party’s track record as it marks its 100th birthday and its takeover of HK 24 years ago on July 1st.
Chinese Human Rights Defenders
Uyghur Human Rights Project
The Rights Practice