Amnesty International is the latest casualty of China’s national security law for Hong Kong, which has swept away civil rights organisations, trade unions, and media organisations since it came into effect slightly more than a year ago.
The international human rights organisation, which has been operating in the region for over 40 years, announced that it was closing its two offices in Hong Kong, with its local office scheduled to cease operations on October 31, 2021. Amnesty’s regional office, which is part of its international secretariat and conducts research, campaigning, and advocacy work across the region, will close its doors by the end of the year.
“This decision, made with a heavy heart, has been driven by Hong Kong’s national security law, which has made it effectively impossible for human rights organisations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government,” said Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, the chairperson of Amnesty’s International Board.
The national security law, imposed by the Chinese central government, was enacted on June 30, 2020. It targets alleged acts of “secession”, “subversion of state power”, “terrorist activities” and “collusion with foreign or external forces to endanger national security”, which are punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison.
Since the implementation of the law scores of pro-democracy activists have been arrested, legislators disqualified, and books removed from library shelves as part of a sweeping crackdown on dissent. Amnesty said a government crackdown targeting activists, opposition politicians, and independent media had been expanded to include civil society organisations. As a result, it added, at least 35 groups had disbanded.
“Its sweeping and vaguely worded definition of ‘national security’, which follows that of the Beijing authorities, has been used arbitrarily as a pretext to restrict the human rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association, as well as to repress dissent and political opposition,” explained Amnesty.
Experts have said the laws can be easily manipulated to build a case against anyone, including persons working with international organisations. Some non-government organisations have expressed fears that the new legislation means they face a choice of either having to leave Hong Kong or working with the same kind of fears and constraints they would encounter in mainland China.
“The environment of repression and perpetual uncertainty created by the national security law makes it impossible to know what activities might lead to criminal sanctions. The law has repeatedly been used to target people who have upset the authorities for any number of reasons – from singing political songs to discussing human rights issues in the classroom,” said Bais.
“There are difficult days ahead for human rights in Hong Kong, but Amnesty International will continue to stand with the people of Hong Kong. We will fight for their rights to be respected and we will be vigilant in our scrutiny of those who abuse them,” said Agnes Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
In a June 30, 2021 briefing, Amnesty documented the deterioration of human rights in Hong Kong one year after the enactment of the national security law.
“From politics to culture, education to media, the law has infected every part of Hong Kong society and fomented a climate of fear that forces residents to think twice about what they say, what they tweet, and how they live their lives. Ultimately, this sweeping and repressive legislation threatens to make the city a human rights wasteland increasingly resembling mainland China,” the research briefing, titled In the Name of National Security, said.
It outlined how the new law had been used to crack down on international political advocacy, arresting or ordering the arrest of 12 individuals for “colluding” or “conspiracy to collude” with “foreign forces” because they were in contact with foreign diplomats, called for sanctions from other countries, or called for other countries to provide asylum for those fleeing from persecution.
“Others were targeted for their social media posts or for giving interviews to foreign media,” it said.
The law expanded the powers of law enforcement investigators. The Hong Kong Police’s national security unit is now allowed to search properties, freeze or confiscate assets, and seize journalistic materials.
Pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily fell victim to the national security law after the authorities used it to freeze the assets of the company, and its founder and owner, forcing it to stop operations in June 2021.
The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, popularly known as Hong Kong Alliance, which for more than 30 years organised an annual vigil on June 4 to remember the protesters killed in China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, disbanded in September 2021 after coming under increased pressure. It was being investigated for allegedly acting as an “agent of foreign forces”, a crime under the Hong Kong national security law. The alliance decided to dissolve itself after several of its leaders were arrested, charged, or jailed on national security charges and its assets frozen.
The Civil Human Rights Front, the umbrella group behind many of Hong Kong’s largest protests, disbanded on August 13, 2021.
The Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, the city’s largest such group, disbanded in August, 2021, just days after it was targeted for fierce criticism by Chinese state media and the city’s Education Bureau severed its ties with it, accusing the 48-year-old group of helping to infiltrate schools with politics.
In October 2021, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions voted to disband as the authorities used the national security law to target its officials and members.
The New School for Democracy, which focuses on bringing together activists from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in order to promote democracy in Chinese society, moved to Taiwan in 2020, a few months after the law came into effect.
The mainland Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress passed the Hong Kong National Security Law on June 30, 2020 in the wake of pro-democracy protests instigated by a bill proposed in 2019 to enable extradition to the mainland.
Details of the national security law were only revealed after it had been passed and become effective. It gives Beijing immense powers to shape life in Hong Kong. Critics say it curtails protest and freedom of speech, but China insists it will return stability.
According to the law, damaging public transport facilities can be considered terrorism. It allows Beijing to establish a security office in Hong Kong, with its own law enforcement personnel – and neither of them come under the local authority’s jurisdiction. The office has powers to send some cases to be tried in mainland China.
Beijing now has power over how the law should be interpreted, and if the law conflicts with any Hong Kong law, the Beijing law takes priority.
The legislation allows for “strengthening” of the management of foreign non-governmental organisations and news agencies, and applies to non-permanent residents and people “from outside [Hong Kong]… who are not permanent residents of Hong Kong”.
Hong Kong is a former British colony that was handed back to China in 1997 under a special arrangement that allowed it to have some autonomy under the Basic Law, effectively giving it two legal systems.
The agreement provides for the protection of certain freedoms for Hong Kong that are not allowed in mainland China. These include freedom of assembly and speech; an independent judiciary; and some democratic rights.
Although the agreement states that Hong Kong should have its own national security law, it has not been possible to enact it because it has proved unpopular and any attempts to legislate it have been met with massive protests. China bypassed the special agreement and introduced the national security law by decree.