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Hong Kong’s Dismal December

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Hong Kong’s Dismal December

The oppression of rights and political participation in Hong Kong marked new milestones at the end of 2023. The international community must hold Beijing to account at its upcoming UPR.

Hong Kong’s Dismal December
Credit: Depositphotos

With the trial of media mogul Jimmy Lai beginning this week, the issuing of another round of arrest warrants and bounties against five exiled Hong Kong activists last week, and the sham district council elections on December 10, Hong Kong is once again in the news – all of it bad.

The national security trial of Lai is emblematic of the dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms. As the founder and publisher of Hong Kong’s major pro-democracy newspaper, the Apple Daily, which was forced to shut down in 2021, his trial symbolizes the collapse of press freedom.  The fact that he has already been in prison for three years on multiple charges, including a 13-month sentence simply for lighting a candle and saying a prayer at a vigil to mark the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and a 14-month sentence for participating in a peaceful protest in 2019, illustrates the eradication of freedom of assembly and expression. And the prosecution of a very successful entrepreneur simply because of his opinions marks a stab at economic freedom, the heart of Hong Kong’s identity and success.

The way the Chinese Communist Party killed off Lai’s media business was chilling – and ought to serve as a warning to every business person in today’s Hong Kong. 

First, the authorities simply froze the bank accounts of his company Next Media, publishers of Apple Daily, leaving the board little choice but to close the newspaper, as they could not pay salaries or bills. They were not short of money in the bank, and were financially able to continue for some time, but they simply could not access their accounts.

Then, in January 2023, the Hong Kong Stock Exchange delisted Next Digital.

And in one of the most absurd developments, Lai was accused of a lease violation for use of a personal office in the Apple Daily building, leading to an almost six-year jail sentence for fraud. This politically-motivated charge was designed with only one purpose: to damage his reputation. The idea that the proprietor of a publication should not use office space in its building seems ridiculous, but even if technically there was a lease violation, in any normal legal system it would be a civil case and not an imprisonable crime. 

If Beijing can go after a billionaire tycoon in this way, not only by jailing him but by shutting down some of his businesses, no one is safe in Hong Kong today.

Arrest warrants and HK$1 million bounties issued by the Hong Kong authorities against exiled Hong Kong pro-democracy activists mean the dangers of criticizing Beijing outside Hong Kong have increased too. 

The five arrest warrants last week, including against Simon Cheng and two others based in the United Kingdom and Washington, D.C.-based Frances Hui and Joey Siu, a U.S. citizen, follow a previous round of warrants issued against eight exiles in July. They illustrate the extraterritorial application of the draconian National Security Law. The harassment of some of the families of these individuals in Hong Kong also turns up the pressure.

The sham district council elections – or “selections” – on December 10 illustrate the undermining of the right to political participation in Hong Kong. The entire pro-democracy camp was completely excluded from contesting seats, and voters were faced with choosing between pro-Beijing candidates. 

The voters opted to make their views known by refusing to participate in the charade, leading to 27.5 percent turnout, the lowest in Hong Kong’s history. That was in stark contrast to the 2019 district council elections, which saw a record 71. percent turnout and an overwhelming victory for pro-democracy parties.

With these developments, as well as the continued imprisonment of barrister Chow Hang-Tung, whose detention has been declared arbitrary by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, it is vital that as many countries in the United Nations as possible raise Hong Kong prominently in China’s forthcoming Universal Periodic Review (UPR) on January 23 next year.

The UPR is a process by which the human rights record of every member state at the U.N. is reviewed every five years. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) can make submissions, but ultimately it is member states that have the opportunity to make statements, ask questions, and issue recommendations. 

The list of human rights concerns that deserve to be raised in China’s UPR is long. Member states will quite rightly want to address the genocide of the Uyghurs, atrocities in Tibet, and the crackdown on freedom of expression, freedom of religion or belief, dissidents, human rights defenders, and civil society activists throughout all regions of China. But among that list, Hong Kong must feature prominently.

The UPR reviews the period since the previous UPR, which was in 2018. In that period, the region of China that has changed most dramatically, most rapidly, and most substantially – for the worse – is Hong Kong. The atrocities in the Xinjiang region (known to Uyghurs as East Turkestan) and Tibet are grave, but were well underway at the time of China’s last UPR. In the past five years, meanwhile, Hong Kong has been transformed from one of the most open cities in Asia to one of its most repressive police states, in total violation of an international treaty, the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Member states will be constrained in the UPR process by time, and so will not be able to raise every issue that deserves attention. So they face a choice. Some could choose to focus particularly on Hong Kong, alongside one or two other issues, and make substantive points, while others may wish to focus on other issues but briefly reference Hong Kong. Both approaches would be welcome.

For those who choose to give Hong Kong substantive attention – and I hope there will be many – there are a range of issues to highlight. The draconian National Security Law, which is at the root of most of Hong Kong’s human rights challenges today, should particularly be highlighted, and calls should be made for its repeal. The sedition law, which has also been used to silence dissent, should also be raised and its repeal recommended.

Arbitrary detention, especially the cases of Lai and Chow, and the plight of all political prisoners in Hong Kong should be addressed. The erosion of judicial independence, the rule of law, trade union rights, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression, the disproportionate police brutality in 2019, and the extraterritorial repression seen in arrest warrants issued for exiled Hong Kongers are all important issues to bring up.

For those member states who choose to prioritize other human rights issues in China, they could still help by simply incorporating Hong Kong into all relevant recommendations made to China. Simply inserting the words “including in Hong Kong” when they make recommendations to Beijing would be valuable, because it would serve two purposes: it would highlight Hong Kong and send a message to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR). If Hong Kong is not mentioned, the danger is that the Hong Kong government – which is still, on paper, autonomous even though in reality it is a directly-controlled subsidiary of Beijing – will choose to ignore recommendations on the basis that they apply to China and not the Hong Kong SAR specifically.

For member states that wish to take a less confrontational approach, they could simply refer to the U.N.’s own recommendations during the past few years. Hong Kong has been subject to several treaty body reviews in recent years, including its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CEDAW), each of which have highlighted the violations of human rights under Hong Kong’s National Security Law. Member states could point to the treaty bodies’ recommendations, and statements by U.N. special rapporteurs, and ask China what it is doing to implement them.

Whatever approach member states take – and there will be a mixture – it is my profound hope that many countries will raise Hong Kong. While the United Kingdom, United States, Canada, Australia, and European countries will hopefully play a leading role in speaking up for Hong Kong, it should not be left to “Western” democracies alone. Japan, South Korea, India, Indonesia, and other Asian democracies should also play a key role, as should member states from Latin America, Africa, and the Pacific.

The dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms ought to be a matter of concern for every member state that cares about the international rules-based order and upholding the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related treaties. China’s UPR in January is an opportunity to highlight the situation in Hong Kong. It is an opportunity not to be missed.