Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee Ka-chiu (李家超) has promised more security legislation for 2024 in his annual policy address, decrying “anti-China and destabilizing activities camouflaged in the name of human rights, freedom, democracy and livelihood.” So, there will be no true votes or self-expression for Hong Kongers. Only Beijing’s stability posturing.
U.S.-sanctioned Lee’s affirmation of yet more Hong Kong laws to cover matters such as treason and espionage during the October 25 address comes as the existing legal framework is used to arrest people for unfurling banners or holding flowers to mark their grief on China’s National Day; to charge them with assault for firing water pistols at police on Songkran or with participating in a riot for answering their constituents’ calls for assistance during a violent mob attack; and to jail them for the “soft resistance” of playing “Glory to Hong Kong” on the erhu. All of this in just four weeks.
As they stand, according to Photon Media, current rules also permit prison authorities to place respected figures like the former vice chairperson of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, Tonyee Chow Hang-tung (鄒幸彤), into solitary confinement for periods of up to 14 days, six times in five months, under ludicrous pretexts like taking extra candies or overshooting the prescribed book allowance.
But enough is never enough for John Lee and his backers in Beijing. Not satisfied with having to construct indirect ploys to arrest people, such as the suspected sale of pension funds without a license used to detain former district councilor and activist Derek Chu Kong-wai (朱江瑋) this month, they are seeking more legal tools to enable the pretense that such individuals are spying or betraying China from within.
Chu was taken away by police on October 17 in relation to the financial work he conducts to support Hong Kongers who have been imprisoned while fighting for democracy, and his targeting now allows a raid on all his personal effects to uncover others with the same sympathies.
No doubt many with loyalties to China President Xi Jinping would like to see him convicted of more heinous crimes, but his arrest for pension fraud is already grotesquely — and perhaps intentionally — ironic: U.K.-based NGO Hong Kong Watch almost concurrently revealed that Hong Kong authorities are compelling Canadian companies Manulife and Sun Life to deny overseas Hong Kongers access to money held in the city’s Mandatory Provident Fund, a retirement savings scheme into which they have compulsorily paid, sometimes for decades.
The situation, which has also seen mass jailings during the month of October, has led the Hong Kong Rule of Law Monitor, a group of local lawyers based in other countries, to damn the city from which it takes its name as a “stark illustration” of how rule of law “can be wielded as a tool to curtail freedom and human rights, perpetuating a cycle of authoritarian control.”
The statement, which appears in a newly released report into the practical application of Hong Kong’s legal framework in 2022, was published just three days after a judge named Maggie Poon Man-kay (潘敏琦) reaffirmed that jailing a person for rioting does not currently require any actual evidence that they engaged in such behavior.
Containing no less than 57 recommendations, including a pointed request to the international community not to aid the Hong Kong government in whitewashing its crimes, the Hong Kong Rule of Law Monitor’s report describes police intimidation of solicitors and barristers who had assisted pro-democracy protesters; the acceptance by courts of trivialities as indications of guilt for serious crimes, like one defendant’s possession of legal hotlines; the stuffing of key judiciary positions with people selected by Hong Kong’s chief executive; and the strangulation of judicial discretion in terms of sentencing.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights put out a similarly grim press release on October 9, relaying the concerns of four of its expert special rapporteurs over “the use of mass trials in [National Security Law] cases and how they may negatively affect safeguards that ensure due process and the right to fair trial.”
With China currently putting Hong Kong forward as the future dispute resolution center for its Belt and Road drive to expand global infrastructure, countries signing up to the initiative ought to take these deteriorations in the rule of law as a warning. Those like Romania, which is wiggling a circumvention of its own legislated protections against Chinese surveillance tech on the false grounds that Hong Kong’s legal system is independent, might also take note.
Another group in danger of getting their fingers burnt are the CEOs of Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Franklin Resources and several other major investors, all of whom are set to attend a Global Financial Leaders’ Investment Summit hosted by John Lee in November. By answering Lee’s call in his hour of need, they may prop up Hong Kong’s image against a wider trend of the business community abandoning ship and thereby engage in just the kind of whitewashing that the aforementioned Hong Kong Rule of Law Monitor requests influential figures to avoid.
On the same note, California Governor Gavin Newsom has also attracted ire for the optics of his brief touchdown in Hong Kong in late October as part of a mission to Beijing that sidelined other issues in order to focus on the climate crisis. Avoiding any major Hong Kong officials, his brief appearance was of questionable necessity, except perhaps for the Chinese Communist Party, who will appreciate the power of his presence to destigmatize Hong Kong, which is now a pariah to many due to its attacks on its own citizens.
More than 50 Chinese, Hong Kong, Taiwanese, Tibetan and Uyghur groups slammed Newsom’s “decision to explicitly turn away from engaging on critical human rights issues” and expressed fear about the precedent his brief sojourn will set in an open letter arguing, “As the first high-profile U.S. official to visit Hong Kong since the National Security Law (N.S.L.), Gov. Newsom’s poor messaging sets a problematic tone for future diplomatic engagement.”
The autumn push in various quarters to reform Hong Kong’s international appearance is mirrored domestically with a smorgasbord of symbols, decisions and policies that assert Beijing’s dominance under the guise of patriotism. The Five Star Red Flag has been flying in St. John’s Cathedral as the Chinese Communist Party emphasizes who is boss to religious groups, and Xi Jinping’s musings will be brought deeper into classrooms deprived of free-thinking teachers with a Beijing-issued “patriotic” education law that expressly targets Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan.
Coming into force from January 1, 2024, its version of history will go unchallenged as visa extensions are denied to award-winning experts on key topics like Tiananmen, more books are hauled from library shelves, and those who would offer a different Chinese perspective are bundled out of Hong Kong to uncertain futures in the mainland.
Yet rubber-stamping this charade still does not come easy to Hong Kong’s Beijing-anointed leaders. Their attempts to feign support for their rule with forthcoming “patriots only” District Council elections on December 10 are running into headwinds. They might have shored up the result in advance by reducing the number of directly elected seats to less than 20% and establishing a nomination procedure for would-be electoral candidates that requires them first to seek nomination from often uncontactable members of three committees, some of whom are also standing for office themselves, but still alternative voices have a way of creeping through.
At least 12 former elected councilors have publicly called for a boycott of the ballot in a statement that piggybacks on the sham elections to slap down Hong Kong authorities. It blames them for “systematically changing the political landscape of Hong Kong in a destructive manner to stifle all voices opposing the Chinese Communist Party.” Hence, not for the first time, the scale of repression only serves to highlight the justification for dissent.