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Human Rights

How Hong Kong lost its once treasured civil liberties

By

Revolution of Our Times,” a documentary film featuring Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement recently won the award for best documentary at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards (a Chinese-language equivalent to the Oscars) in late November 2021. 

Director Kiwi Chow delivered via video a passionate speech about finding solace through the making of this film, dedicating it to “Hong Kongers who have conscience, justice and who have shed tears for Hong Kong.” 

Sadly, a documentary that best captured the Hong Kong people’s spirit of freedom cannot be distributed in Hong Kong itself, owing to changes that occurred after Beijing imposed the National Security Law (NSL) on Hong Kong back in June 2020.

Indeed, once a beacon of prosperity, independence, and freedom, Hong Kong has experienced its greatest setback in civil liberties since the 1997 handover from Britain.

China’s National Security Law is a violation of “one country, two systems”

It’s hard to understate the wide-ranging impact that this legislation has had on Hong Kong since its introduction in 2020. The NSL effectively ended the liberty and autonomy the territory once enjoyed under the “one country, two systems” framework that the Chinese government agreed to as a constitutional principle. 

Under the pretense of protecting national security and restoring “stability” through the criminalization of four major offenses – secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign countries – this draconian law provided the regime with legal justification to criminalize political opponents and stifle dissent.

Since the National Security Law began to be implemented, over 100 protesters, activists, journalists, lawyers, and others have been arrested for a combination of NSL and non-NSL charges. 

They were targeted for being pro-democracy leaders and criminalized for merely exercising their basic political rights, such as organizing the annual Tiananmen Square Massacre commemoration vigil, communicating with overseas advocacy groups or human rights organizations, or displaying flags and publishing articles with a pro-democracy message. 

Many more were forced into exile or simply silenced, leaving them with emotional wounds and lingering trauma of guilt and despair.

Of course, the arrests were only made possible by the regime’s co-opting of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, judiciary, and police force, ensuring that these institutions act increasingly as tools of Chinese state control

Undermining the rule of law and human rights guarantees inherent in the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s de facto constitution), the NSL created a separate track for these political cases. The accused are typically denied a fair trial in order to facilitate guilty verdicts – a tragic departure from Hong Kong’s common law tradition. To do this, the state significantly curtailed individuals’ rights to due process, such as the right to an attorney of one’s own choosing, the right to pretrial release or bail, and the right to a trial by jury.

The crackdown on civil society in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s once vibrant civil society has also collapsed under the weight of the legal risks. This year alone, over 50 civil society groups have had their assets frozen or been forced to disband and move. 

This includes domestic NGOs like the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (the organizer of Hong Kong’s annual candlelight vigil commemoration of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown), as well as international NGOs such as Amnesty International’s Hong Kong chapter.

Other unions, churches, media groups, private businesses, and political parties were not spared either. Next Digital, the organization behind the fiercely pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, was raided by hundreds of police officers before being forced into liquidation earlier this year. 

Its 73-year-old founder, business tycoon Jimmy Lai, refused to leave Hong Kong despite fully understanding the risks. Lai insisted on staying put in order to continue the resistance, regardless of how remote the odds were of achieving change. He was subsequently sentenced to 14 months in prison without bail in April 2021.

In many ways, Mr. Lai epitomized the moral conscience of the pro-democracy movement. He explained his reasoning for not leaving Hong Kong in an interview with the Financial Times, stating that “A captain can’t jump ship. You may save your life but you will live in hell.” 

When asked whether the protests were self-defeating in bringing about the very outcome it attempted to prevent, he replied that, “At least we fought, we showed our dignity and that Hong Kong people aren’t just people who are money makers. We have a soul, we have dignity, we have pride as human beings. That’s important. We can’t have mass resistance again but we haven’t given up.”

While the Chinese Communist Party has successfully altered the laws and institutions in Hong Kong for now, it remains to be seen whether the regime can ever break the unyielding fighting spirit of Hong Kongers and their resolve for freedom.

Hong Kong presents a case study for how a free society can be dismantled by an authoritarian regime, and how fragile hard-won rights and civil liberties really are.

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