Leading civil society figures in Hong Kong are responding with alarm and fear to the prospect of a new national security law that would give Beijing sweeping new powers to control daily life. The law, which was approved by China’s parliament last week, and has yet to be finalized, is widely viewed as the most serious assault to date in a series of attacks on Hong Kong’s rule of law and the civil liberties of its citizens.
Based on publicly available reports, the national security law is likely to ban a range of vague and ill-defined acts, including treason, secession, sedition and subversion, and will authorize China’s security services to operate openly within Hong Kong. In effect, the law is likely to mark a significant turning point in Beijing’s ability to directly control events in Hong Kong, including as relates to freedom of speech and the right to protest and dissent. The new law follows years of Beijing undermining the independence of Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, including its judiciary.
Against this backdrop, the city is bracing for a potentially explosive month ahead. June 4 will mark Hong Kong’s annual commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, when hundreds (possibly thousands) of student-led protestors were killed by Chinese security forces. Five days later, the city will observe the first anniversary of the outbreak of the most recent round of major protests, with additional demonstrations planned. Mass demonstrations against the new security law have already taken place, and are likely to increase as the legislation proceeds in the coming weeks, despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Human rights lawyers have been among the main targets of Beijing’s accelerating assertion of control over Hong Kong. Over the past year, under the sway of the Chinese government, Hong Kong authorities and their allies have smeared, “doxed” (revealed personal information), harassed, arrested, and physically assaulted lawyers as mass protests have swept the city. But the new security law is potentially the most devastating of all the threats against lawyers and other parts of the city’s civil society.
Hong Kong’s legal professionals warn that the law could effectively end the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement struck when the United Kingdom government returned Hong Kong to China in 1997 after 150 years of British rule. Under the terms of that agreement, China pledged to honor Hong Kong’s Basic Law until at least 2047, with Hong Kong retaining its own currency and legal system. Beijing increasingly appears to be abandoning this commitment.
Last year, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents repeatedly took to the streets in response to the perceived threat to the One Country, Two Systems arrangement from a now-shelved extradition bill that would have allowed the extradition of suspects to mainland China. Under the extradition bill, protestors feared, the Chinese government would have targeted opponents by alleging that they had committed crimes. Given China’s repressive and politicized judicial system, the law threatened to impose a legalized form of rendition.
For decades, Human Rights First has documented attacks on human rights lawyers around the world, regarding them as an important indicators of a broader undermining of the rule of law. Lawyers who spoke to spoke to Human Rights First for this report say the undermining of Hong Kong’s freedom has been under way for some time, and warned that the new security law would effectively abolish the current political system. These attorneys noted that, among other likely impacts, the new national security law is expected to override limited, existing protections for those protesting peacefully, as well as for those who represent them in court or provide them with legal advice.
In keeping with this view, in April 2020, three judges, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that Hong Kong’s “independent judiciary, the cornerstone of the city’s broad freedoms, is in a fight for its survival.”6 And as Eric Cheung, a law scholar at the University of Hong Kong recently noted, “The Central Government is enacting a tailor-made law designed for the situation in Hong Kong under the guise of enforcing a nationwide law … [it] would utterly violate the Basic Law, and annul the One Country, Two Systems model.”7 More cautiously, the Hong Kong Bar Association has registered its “deep unease” with the proposed new law, which it described as containing “a number of worrying and problematic features.”
As part of their attack on Hong Kong’s independent judicial system, local authorities backed by Beijing are directly targeting human rights lawyers, including those who have both represented protestors and themselves protested. In August 2019, thousands of Hong Kong legal professionals staged a silent march in opposition to the proposed extradition bill. Following these protests, on April 18, 2020, police arrested fifteen veteran pro-democracy activists, including leading human rights lawyers Albert Ho, Martin Lee, and Margaret Ng, for allegedly having organized and participated in unlawful assemblies.9
Ho, Lee and Ng appeared in the East Magistrate’s Court on May 18th, facing charges under the Public Order Ordinance. Their trial is set to recommence on June 15.
Ho, one of Hong Kong’s highest-profile human rights lawyers, said that in November 2019, he was ambushed and beaten by three masked men with canes as he walked home. He went to the hospital with multiple injuries to his back and arms. In the course of his arrest, Ho noted that his phone had been confiscated; indeed, the Hong Kong police may be arresting internationally recognized opposition figures in part to gain access to their phones.
While the harassment and arrests of protestors have received strong criticism from abroad—including from U.S. government officials—Hong Kong’s human rights lawyers are calling for a more specific focus on their repression, especially now they are faced with the new threat of the security law. Support from international organizations and foreign officials could, they say, provide them a measure of protection.
In September 2019 Human Rights First released a report on the Chinese government’s effort to undermine the rule of law in Hong Kong—an effort that has intensified. This new report is a joint initiative of the Law School of the University of Hong Kong and Human Rights First. It is based primarily on interviews with Hong Kong human rights lawyers conducted in 2020 and publicly available information. Some of the lawyers’ who agreed to speak with Human Rights First did so under a condition of anonymity. Their names have been changed for their protection.