Last Friday, Sebastien Lai (黎崇恩), the son of imprisoned pro-democracy campaigner and publisher Jimmy Lai (黎智英), addressed the United Nations Human Rights Council and was interrupted by delegates from China who asked for his speech to be cut off. They suggested that Lai had “exaggerated” the trials faced by his father, before being overruled.
Two days before his speech the Human Rights Initiative’s (HMRI) East Asia data launch highlighted much the same political atmosphere that Lai described, with an online questionnaire collecting the opinions of local human rights experts about the broader situation in Hong Kong. Its findings were pretty damning — certainly fitting more closely to Lai’s descriptions of Hong Kong than that of the delegates from China.
Summarizing what the numbers show at the launch, Steve Vines, a journalist from Hong Kong Media Overseas, said Hong Kong’s human rights situation was converging with the rest of China’s: “The state of human rights in Hong Kong is moving closer to that of the Chinese mainland. In Hong Kong there was a ramping up of the process following the takeover in 1997, but what has happened in the last three years has been an acceleration of that process on steroids.”
At first glance the numbers don’t look especially outstanding. HMRI’s latest rankings suggest Hong Kong is performing “better than average” on measurements for quality of life (relative to GDP), “close to average” on the right to be “safe from the state,” and only “worse than average” on so-called empowerment rights — referring to the rights to assembly and association, opinion and expression, participation in government, religion and belief.
You have to look within the categories for the key negatives to jump out.
Under the category of empowerment, the right to freedom of assembly and association received a score of just 2.7 out of ten, with ten meaning “good” and 0 meaning “very bad.” The right to freedom of opinion and expression received a similarly low score (3.1) and so did the right to participate in government (2.9). The overall average (3.2) is only dragged up slightly by the right to freedom of religion and belief, which was rated at 8 out of ten. All of the subcategories except the last one have dropped by more than one point since 2019.
On the surface, the situation looks better in the “safety from the state” category. The absence of the death penalty (10) and “good” scores on a relative lack of forced disappearances (7.4) and extrajudicial extradition (8.1) bring up the average from far lower scores on freedom from arbitrary arrest (4.8) and torture and ill treatment (6.4). But on top of this, in the latter two categories an improvement of over two points is observed since 2019.
However, that “improvement” in the numbers doesn’t necessarily mean the human rights situation improved.
“I think it’s really interesting that [the freedom from arbitrary arrest] number appears to be improving,” said Anouk Wear (華穆清) a research and policy advisor at Hong Kong Watch said during the HMRI launch. “I wonder whether behind the scenes that means that there are fewer people to arrest, because people … are already in prison, or they have left Hong Kong.” She also suggested it could mean increasing self-censorship.
In other words: Welcome to Hong Kong, where even the good numbers are bad.
Speaking briefly on how this is happening, journalist Vines added that the law is no longer a protector of human rights in Hong Kong. The “extinction of civil society” in Hong Kong has come through the “weaponization of the law,” he said. “Everything in Hong Kong is done legally … And this is true, because indeed they have got sweeping powers under the law to extinguish human and civil rights.” Even arrests with legal justification can be arbitrary when the National Security Law is so loosely written any decision the state favors, he said.
Of course, rankings systems like HMRI’s should be approached with caution — the data is uneven and subjective value judgements necessarily sit behind the objective-looking numbers — but they can be added to an already substantial pile of authoritative accounts pointing in the same direction.
HMRI uses an expert survey to produce the scores listed above, using a “secure, anonymous, online questionnaire,” to ask local human rights experts (“such as people working for human rights organizations; human rights lawyers; journalists specializing in social issues”) a series of detailed questions about government behavior in the previous year.
Image: Human Rights Initiative