My friend from Hong Kong sat across the table from me and told me he was leaving the city of his birth, and does not intend to return. “Civil society and political activists are in imminent danger,” he said. “It is no longer my home.”
Highly educated, with a successful career and excellent English, he said that all avenues by Hong Kong people to save their freedoms and autonomy have been exhausted. “Millions protested peacefully, and they were jailed. Activists ran for election in the legislature, and were disqualified. Booksellers published books, and were abducted. A political party has been banned. A senior foreign correspondent from the Financial Times hosted a speaker from that party at the Foreign Correspondents Club and was expelled. And a series of new laws will make life even harder for civil society and the media in Hong Kong. We have no other hope except the international community,” he said.
A few hours after I met this friend, I had dinner with another Hong Konger. He had the same message. “If the international community does not act, Hong Kong will soon be dead,” he told me.
After dinner, I met two other activists from Hong Kong. Yet again I heard the same refrain: “There is not much more we can do in Hong Kong. We need the international community to wake up and act, before it is too late.”
A week later, I met another Hong Kong student, who is studying in Britain and wants to be a journalist. “There’s no future for me in Hong Kong,” he said. “If I can’t get a job in the United Kingdom or Europe, I will go to somewhere like Singapore. I don’t want to return to Hong Kong.”
Over the past five years the gradual erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy has become more rapid and more blatant. The promises made to the people of Hong Kong by China before the handover almost 22 years ago, under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, have been shredded. “One country, two systems,” the principle upon which China assumed sovereignty in 1997, was meant to guarantee a “high degree of autonomy” and the protection of Hong Kong’s way of life at least for the first 50 years. Less than halfway through that period, “one country, two systems” lies in tatters.
The erosion has accelerated in recent months with the implementation of two new laws and the prospect of two others.
It started with the “co-location” principle, in which mainland Chinese law will apply at the high-speed rail terminus in Kowloon – meaning that if you are travelling to the mainland from Hong Kong, you are subject to mainland law even before you have left Hong Kong. This is a clear breach of the high degree of autonomy protected under Hong Kong’s handover agreement, made worse by the fact that the concerns of leading lawyers about the constitutionality of the proposal were not given any meaningful hearing.
This was followed by the National Anthem Law, which criminalizes any perceived insult to China’s national anthem. Even Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam admits that the definition of such an insult is vague and undefined. The law has been forced through by amending Hong Kong’s Basic Law – an unprecedented intervention against freedom of speech in the city as it uses an annex of the Basic Law as a legislative backdoor for matters beyond Beijing’s purview. As Australian academic Kevin Carrico concludes in a new report published last week by Hong Kong Watch, “what is in need of protection in Hong Kong today is not the national anthem, but rather such basic rights as freedom of opinion, expression, protest and association.”
Recently a third piece of legislation has been proposed, changing the extradition laws to allow Hong Kong to extradite suspected criminals to mainland China. Activists fear this could result in their legalized abduction. Hong Kong’s Law Society and business community have expressed serious concerns, with the American Chamber of Commerce highlighting in a letter to the government the fact that “Mainland criminal process has deep flaws, including lack of an independent judiciary, arbitrary detention, lack of fair public trial, lack of access to legal representation and poor prison conditions.”
Fourth, the long-awaited national security legislation, provided for under Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, could intensify repression under measures against “subversion” if implemented.
Any one of these laws by themselves would be concerning, but taken together, along with Beijing’s increasing interventions in Hong Kong’s justice system, resulting in the disqualification of democratically elected legislators and candidates and the imprisonment of peaceful protesters, amount to a campaign of “lawfare” against Hong Kong’s basic freedoms and human rights. It would appear that the “storm of unprecedented ferocity” that former Court of Final Appeal Judge Kemal Bokhary warned of seven years ago is about to hit.
The international community is, belatedly, starting to wake up. In recent weeks the United States has spoken out, in its annual report on Hong Kong, in a speech by the U.S. Consul-General Kurt Tong, and in the latest report by the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission, all of which highlight the erosion of freedom and autonomy in Hong Kong and the threats Beijing’s increasingly interventionist approach pose for Hong Kong’s economy. The decision by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to meet Hong Kong’s former Chief Secretary and prominent pro-democracy campaigner Anson Chan last week was significant, as were the remarks of the speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. The United Kingdom Parliament’s Joint Human Rights Committee published a report last month that highlighted breaches of the Joint Declaration and threats to freedom in Hong Kong, and last week the British foreign secretary published his latest six-monthly report, which was the most critical and robust yet. The European Union has spoken out. And last month, 11 parliamentarians from around the world, including within Southeast Asia, called on Hong Kong to reform its Public Order Ordinance. But much more is needed.
There are moral reasons to defend Hong Kong’s freedoms, and legal ones too – the Joint Declaration is an international treaty lodged at the United Nations. But we live in a world where moral obligations and legal responsibilities may not be persuasive enough arguments when stacked against a fear of standing up to China. Self-interest, however, is another question. If Hong Kong’s freedoms, transparency, autonomy, and rule of law continue to be undermined, sooner or later business will be impacted. Hong Kong’s role as an international financial center will be weakened, its place as a regional hub for multinational corporations lost, its reputation as a safe location for investments and arbitration destroyed. Increasingly, its local talent – which has made Hong Kong the dynamic economy that it is – will, like my friends, seek opportunities elsewhere. A “brain drain” and a reputational loss are dangers that should cause businesses, whether international or local, to be concerned. And for those reasons, the international community must speak out louder, more concertedly and with one voice, to save Hong Kong.
Benedict Rogers is co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch.