Hong Kong’s Fight for the Rule of Law



Human rights lawyers and other civil society leaders in Hong Kong are urging members of Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 and the PROTECT Hong Kong Act, and are calling on the U.S. legal community to help in the fight to protect Hong Kong’s rule of law. These findings and other conclusions contained within this report are based on interviews with lawyers, law students, academics, and other civil society figures undertaken by Human Rights First in Hong Kong in September 2019.

Large-scale protests have swept Hong Kong for more than three months, initially triggered by opposition to legislation that would allow extradition of suspects to mainland China. Residents feared the legislation would have allowed their government to send those alleged by China to have committed crimes to the mainland to face trial at the Chinese government’s request. Given China’s well-documented absence of rule of law, to many the law threatened to impose a legalized form of rendition.

In early September, Hong Kong authorities announced that they would withdraw the extradition bill following intense public pressure. But the legislation was only one of five demands made of the authorities. The four remaining are: an independent inquiry into the use of force by police; amnesty for arrested protesters; an end to describing the protests as riots; and the implementation of universal suffrage.

While the vast majority of ongoing demonstrations are peaceful, fringe elements willing to use violence are active within the relatively leaderless mass protest movement. Hong Kong police are accused of using excessive force against the protestors, including the indiscriminate use of U.S.-made tear gas. Public trust in the police is largely broken, and Hong Kong society is shaken and polarized by the ongoing unrest. As one lawyer in her 20s put it, “Dehumanizing language is common now. Protestors call the police dogs, and the police call protestors cockroaches because they can’t seem to squash them.”

Protestors and lawyers are appealing to the U.S. government to help end the unrest by pressuring the government of Hong Kong to respect the rule of law and defuse tension. The city is bracing for large-scale demonstrations on October 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, traditionally a day of anti-China protests in Hong Kong. Chinese security forces continue to mass in mainland areas just miles from the city.

Requests from the democracy movement in Hong Kong are a key test for the United States.  President Trump issued a series of tweets about the crisis, including suggesting Chinese Premier Xi Jinping should meet protesters, and should meet with Trump to discuss the crisis.

There are an estimated 80,000-90,000 U.S. citizens living in Hong Kong, and some worry that Beijing will end the “one country, two systems” arrangement with the city through repressive action by mainland security forces. Yet China faces significant constraints of its own. Veteran China analyst Jerry Cohen, director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University’s School of Law explains Xi Jinpin’s dilemma: “He knows the dangers, of course, of repeating a June 4, 1989, Tiananmen-type massacre. He doesn’t want to do that. It would be a disaster for him personally, perhaps, and his leadership, his people, and certainly for Hong Kong and international security. But if push comes to shove, he’ll use force.”

In an environment marked by a contest of wills and localized escalation, residents are looking for help from the United States to deter Chinese aggression and to assist in resolving the crisis. As Hong Kong’s legal community constitutes a key part of civil society, Human Rights First (formerly the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights) centered its ongoing research on the views and analysis of Hong Kong’s legal community. Their recommendations for the U.S. government, offered in the context of a rapidly polarizing politics, are presented herein.


Published on September 19, 2019


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