Legal exodus in Hong Kong: Liberal lawyers flee after facing Chinese threats

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<strong>Legal exodus in Hong Kong: Liberal lawyers flee after facing Chinese threats</strong>

By Bidisha Saha

Originally published by INDIA TODAY  on Jan. 9, 2023

In a systematic effort to cleanse the city of dissent, some leading human rights lawyers in Hong Kong have been arrested in the past two-and-a-half years and many others have come under the radar of the ruling Communist Party in China.

Among the high-profile departures include the city’s top human rights lawyer Michael Vidler, former Bar Association chairman Paul Harris and others. (File photo: AFP)

Lawyers in Hong Kong, who take on human rights cases or have criticised national security law imposed by China or raised warnings against the rule of law, have been facing hardships in a coordinated ‘campaign of intimidation’ waged as a part of a wider crackdown by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), according to a special investigation by news agency Reuters.

Some methods deployed include anonymous threat messages and emails, GPS tracking devices placed under their cars, Chinese ‘funeral money’ being sent to their offices, harassment by state-controlled media, and false allegations of disloyalty amounting to defamation in the press.

The ‘Draconian’ National Security Law

In 2019, the government in Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to China in 1997, proposed an extradition bill that allows a mechanism for transfers of fugitives to Taiwan, mainland China, and Macau. It was met with month-long protests in retaliation to the controversial plan. The anger over the potential bill slowly turned into an anti-government and pro-democracy movement.

In response, China passed the National Security Law (NSL). Legal advocates, critics, and protestors say that the introduction of this law led to the breach of the “one country, two systems” principle.

The law gives enormous powers in the hands of Beijing to control internal issues in Hong Kong, like criminalising any acts of “secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign or external forces” – making it easier to prosecute protestors.

Since the law was passed, hundreds of protestors, activists, legal practitioners, and opposition lawmakers were arrested in an insidious attempt to crush dissent and stifle free speech. Numerous pro-democracy news outlets in Hong Kong were also shut down.

‘Apple Daily’ was one of the significant pro-democracy news outlets which were critical of the CCP’s rule in China and was shut down after several of its journalists were arrested, including its owner, Jimmy Lai.

China Versus Jimmy Lai

Just two months after Beijing’s National Security Law was implemented, the founder of Hong Kong’s widely read newspaper ‘Apple Daily” was arrested. Police raided their offices and froze the company’s funds, which led to the shutdown of its operations.

On December 10, he was sentenced to almost six years in prison for fraud and for participation in a rally to mark the 1989 Tiananmen massacre held in 2021.

Amid extensive protests in 2019 in which thousands of young protesters participated, China imposed NSL and ripped the city of its freedom to express dissent. The case of Jimmy Lai is being used as a warning for others, says Sang Pu, a lawyer from Hong Kong now based in Taiwan, in his interview with an American news outlet.

The journey of the case – from his illegal prosecution to prolonged detention and denial of British lawyers to the case being designated to national security judges – can be taken as cues to a ‘travesty of justice’ in violation of his human rights. He is one of the fiercest critics of China’s rule and an advocate of democracy in Hong Kong – making him a persistent thorn in Xi Jinping’s autocratic governance.

The Great Legal Exodus

Among the high-profile departures include the city’s top human rights lawyer Michael Vidler, former Bar Association chairman Paul Harris, commercial solicitor Kevin Yam, former lawmaker Dennis Kwok and many more. Prominent lawyers like Ding Jiaxi, Xu Zhiyong, Martin Lee, Margaret Ng, and Chow Hang-tung were arrested amid the crackdown. The list of human rights lawyers who have been detained in the last two-and-a-half years is inexhaustible.

Before the election in August, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam issued a warning publicly to not get involved in politics, otherwise the Law Society would lose its role as a part of the administration of justice. Jonathan Ross, a commercial lawyer, announced pulling out of the liberal group and later revealed to Reuters, receiving anonymous threats via Whatsapp.

Another intellectual property solicitor, Henry Wheare, also pulled out after state-sponsored media leveled false allegations against him. The Bar Association faced criticism in the media space by Chinese-controlled news outlets. Paul Harris, a former member and a vocal advocate of the liberal group, tweeted in defiance of China’s determination to squash Hong Kong’s independence. But right after NSL was imposed, he tweeted again about the threat of being “seized in the streets” and “never heard of again” by mainland China agents.

In March 2022, he was questioned by national security police and left for England, hours after being summoned. In his duration as the chairman of the Bar Association in 2021, he became more restrained in his criticism of the security law but raised questions about the possibility that the government could make certain ‘modifications’ to the existing law. It was retorted with a storm of criticism suggesting that the law cannot be challenged. Both the Law Society and Bar Association have been the target of mainland officials who seek control over these influential legal fraternities of Hong Kong.

Dennis Kwok, a former lawmaker in Hong Kong and now a senior research officer at Havard’s Kennedy School, received threats and also found a GPS tracking device under his car containing a sim card twice. He also received Chinese ‘funeral money’ sent to his office with threatening messages reading “You will be needing these very soon,” reported Reuters.

Shared by Dennis Kwok

What are Human Rights Defenders Saying?

India Today spoke to Chinese Human Rights Defender (CHRD) William Nee, who is currently based in the United States and has lived for more than 20 years in Hong Kong to understand the implications on human rights caused by the denial of foreign advocates to Jimmy Lai.

“Lawyers in Hong Kong who take on so-called national security cases are facing harassment and threats from mafia-like figures and campaigns of intimidation in the state-run press. This is all new for a region that once had a vibrant rule of law and free press. But these tactics have all been used in mainland China to silence human rights lawyers, and now that China’s state security apparatus runs Hong Kong, they’re using the same tactics in Hong Kong as well,” he said.

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