CHINA: The dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms, the rule of law and autonomy

HRWF (29.02.2024) – A presentation by Benedict Rogers, co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch at the conference organized by Human Rights Without Frontiers at the Press Club in Brussels on 29 February under the title “Unveiling Authoritarianism: Assessing China’s Governance and Human Rights Landscape”

By Benedict Rogers (*)

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen:

Let me firstly congratulate the organisers, and especially Willy Fautré and Human Rights Without Frontiers, for holding this incredibly important and timely conference on the human rights crisis in China – and its relevance for us all.

It is a great privilege to speak alongside the other distinguished speakers, especially my friend and a Patron of Hong Kong Watch, Sir Geoffrey Nice, KC, who has pioneered and chaired two very important independent tribunals to investigate firstly the crime of forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China and then the genocide of the Uyghurs; Dr Massimo Introvigne, whose work I have followed and respected for some years; Christine Mirre; and His Excellency Dr Roy Chun Lee – the representative of Taiwan, a cause very close to my heart.

Although I will focus my remarks specifically and exclusively on Hong Kong, let me say that I am deeply engaged with wider issues of human rights in China – whether it be the genocide of the Uyghurs, the atrocities in Tibet, forced organ harvesting and persecution of Falun Gong, the persecution of Christians and violations of freedom of religion or belief throughout China, and the wider crackdown on dissent, civil society, human rights defenders and freedom of expression by the Chinese Communist Party regime. I am also deeply engaged with support for and solidarity with Taiwan, which is a living example of a vibrant, successful, thriving Asian democracy that – in total contrast to the People’s Republic of China – upholds, respects, defends and promotes human rights. Indeed, in my new book The China Nexus I have chapters on all these topics, weaving together a common picture and a shared cause.

But today, my focus is Hong Kong and in particular the broken promises and betrayed treaties.

And what makes today’s conference so timely is that just yesterday, a public consultation period regarding a new domestic security law in Hong Kong, known as Article 23 legislation, launched by the Hong Kong government a month ago, ended. Within the past 24 hours the British Foreign Secretary and Parliamentarians in the UK, USA, Canada and the EU, have condemned this proposed legislation as a very grave deterioration in the rule of law and human rights. And a few days ago the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders warned of the dangers of this new law. I will return to this most topical of concerns shortly.

Hong Kong has transitioned very rapidly and dramatically over the past four years from one of Asia’s most open cities to one of the region’s most repressive police states. Beijing has torn up its promises under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty registered at the United Nations, in which it had pledged to protect Hong Kong’s freedoms, high degree of autonomy and way of life under the “one country, two systems” principle for at least the first 50 years of Chinese sovereignty over the city from the time of the handover – in other words, until 2047. Less than halfway through that period, Beijing ripped up and trampled on those promises, describing the very treaty in which they were set out as merely an historical document of no current relevance.

Similarly, while Hong Kong – unlike the People’s Republic of China – is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and has enshrined the ICCPR into its own mini-constitution under the Basic Law, as well as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, in recent years it has flouted its obligations, as the recent UN treaty body reviews under the UN Human Rights Committee, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women have outlined over the past two years.

But to be very honest, the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms, rule of law and autonomy was already beginning some years before that.

I lived in Hong Kong for the first five years after the handover – from 1997-2002. I worked there as a journalist. Hong Kong was where I began my career, and for those very formative years of my life it was my home.

During those early years after the handover, Hong Kong was a very different place. I was able to write and publish articles that today, if I lived in Hong Kong, I would never get published and I would most likely be arrested and jailed for writing.

However, by 2014 I realised things were changing in Hong Kong, with the Umbrella Movement protests. I realised few people at the time in the international community were speaking up, and so I began to advocate for Hong Kong. Over subsequent years I hosted activists visiting London from Hong Kong, campaigned for those who were jailed and co-founded Hong Kong Watch in 2017.

From 2017 until the anti-extradition law protests in 2020 and the imposition of the National Security Law in 2020, the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms was steady but undramatic. We could see the warning signs and warned of them, but they related to – for example – the disqualification of pro-democracy candidates from the legislature, the imposition of mainland Chinese law in the high-speed rail terminus on Hong Kong soil (a concept known as ‘co-location’) and harassment of individual activists. But by and large, press freedom, freedom of protest, freedom of expression, assembly and association were largely still in existence.

However, incrementally the warning signs were clear. For example, in 2017 I was denied entry to Hong Kong, becoming the first westerner to face such a ban, and from 2018-2022 I faced a barrage of regular anonymous, threatening letters to my home address, some letters which went to my neighbours and, separately, some which were sent to my mother telling her to tell me to shut up. If they were doing that to me, a British national, in Britain, you can imagine how much more serious the situation is for Hong Kongers in Hong Kong and in the diaspora.

A key turning point came in 2019 when the Hong Kong government proposed introducing a new law to allow extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China – thus shattering the legal firewall of ‘one country, two systems’ and permitting the extradition of individuals from a system which, at the time, still had the rule of law to a jurisdiction that was entirely ruled by the whims of the authoritarian regime. This sparked enormous protests lasting months – with on one occasion at least one million marching and the following week two million marching: out of a population of seven million.

Those protests were met with unjustifiable, disproportionate and extreme police brutality. The police turned the streets of Hong Kong into a teargas-filled war zone in 2019.

Despite the police brutality, the people of Hong Kong spoke with a loud voice during the elections for the district councils at the end of 2019 – with a turnout of 71% and an overwhelming majority for the pro-democracy parties. That was the last time a genuinely free and fair democratic election was held in Hong Kong.

Since then, Hong Kong has been on a rapid descent from the last vestiges of freedom into authoritarianism.

In July 2020, Beijing imposed a draconian National Security Law on Hong Kong which has destroyed press freedom, freedom of expression, assembly and association. Since 2019, there have been over 10,000 arrests, 2,300 prosecutions and a new climate of fear in Hong Kong.

In November 2020, the entire pro-democracy camp was effectively expelled from the Legislative Council, and in January 2021 55 pro-democracy activists – including former legislators, aides, campaigners – were arrested, accused of committing a crime by holding a primary election to choose their candidates for what should have been the Legislative Council elections. Of these, 47 remain in jail today, over three years later, awaiting trial and denied bail.

Then came the assault on media freedom.

First, with police raids of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper, founded by the 76 year-old entrepreneur and British citizen Jimmy Lai – who is currently on trial and facing the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison. I wrote a weekly column for the English language online edition of the Apple Daily in the last twelve months of its existence, and I can honestly say its spirit of freedom and courage was the most inspiring of any publication I have ever written for. This Brussels Press Club should celebrate the Apple Daily and campaign for the freedom of its founder, Jimmy Lai, a champion of press freedom.

Apple Daily was finally forced to shut down in the summer of 2021, after further police raids and then eventually the authorities froze the assets of the publishing company, leaving it unable to pay its bills. And Jimmy Lai was arrested in December 2020 and has been in jail ever since.

Since then there has been the closure of Stand News and the arrest and trial of its editors; the closure of Citizen News; and the shutdown of other independent media. Hong Kong Watch published a report on the assault on media freedom – titled In the Firing Line – in 2022.

It is important to note that the National Security Law has an extra-territorial clause. That means that my speech today, and this very conference, is in violation of Hong Kong’s National Security Law, even though we’re 6,000 miles away from Hong Kong in Brussels. I am breaching the National Security Law of Hong Kong by virtue of what I do each and every day – and today, so is the Brussels Press Club and potentially all of you.

Indeed, in 2022, I received an official letter from the Hong Kong Police Force and the Hong Kong National Security Bureau, informing me that my activities and the work of Hong Kong Watch is a serious breach of Hong Kong’s National Security Law, even though we have no presence in Hong Kong and what we do is entirely outside Hong Kong, and threatening me with a heavy fine and prison sentence in Hong Kong.

The current trial of Jimmy Lai – which I hope you are following and if you’re not, I hope you will – is emblematic of Beijing’s assault on all of Hong Kong’s freedoms, especially press freedom and freedom of expression. I would recommend you all watch the documentary The HongKonger – available for free download from – or if possible arrange a screening here in the Press Club. I hope you will all follow Support Jimmy Lai on Twitter and as a website, and tweet your own support with #FreeJimmyLai.

I have been named in the trial proceedings, as have other foreign nationals. WhatsApp messages from Jimmy to me – completely innocuous, innocent, normal communications – have been presented as evidence. I am happy to discuss this in more detail in the Q&A.

But it isn’t just about Jimmy Lai. There are hundreds of other political prisoners in Hong Kong – some of whom do not want attention, but all of whom deserve our support. People like the brave lawyer Chow Hang-Tung, whose imprisonment for organising a vigil to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre has been determined by the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to be illegal.

And now Hong Kong faces a further descent into the depths of repression, with the introduction of a further security law, Article 23.

The reaction of the Hong Kong government to our statements says it all. Last week we, Hong Kong Watch, led a statement signed by 85 other civil society organisations, including Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Index on Censorship. The Hong Kong government condemned it, and the Hong Kong Security Secretary Chris Tang described it as a “gangster” tactic aimed at intimidating, harassing and interfering with Hong Kong affairs. When was the last time gangsters prepared a carefully drafted legal and scholarly reviewed statement with over 85 NGOs behind it?

Under this new legislation, a new crime of “incitement of hatred against the fundamental system of the State, such state organs as provided for in the Constitution, the offices of the [Central People’s Government] … and the constitutional order” of Hong Kong is proposed, under offences relating to “seditious intention”.

Arguably, by its own actions no one has incited such hatred against itself more than the Hong Kong government, the Hong Kong police force and the CCP regime in Beijing.

If Article 23 goes ahead in its proposed form, the free world should act. We can explore how in our discussion. But to allow the repression in Hong Kong to continue with impunity, in total breach of promises made and treaties signed by China, would be dangerous for us all. The assault on Hong Kong is an assault on the international rules-based order – and it is in all our interests to counter that and defend our values.

(*) Benedict Rogers is the author of The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny, and is the co-founder and CEO of Hong Kong Watch.  Among many other things, he is a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and an advisor to the World Uyghur Congress. He has served on the boards of several other charities and for 30 years was associated with Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) in various capacities. He is a regular contributor to international media, including The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Telegraph, The Spectator, Foreign Policy and The Diplomat, has testified previously before the US Congress, the European Parliament and the UK Parliament and is a regular speaker at conferences and in the media around the world. 

Further reading about FORB in China on HRWF website