By Tommy Walker
March 20, 2023
Photographers take picture of the members of League of Social Democrats scuffling with police outside the West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts ahead of the national security trail for the pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, Feb. 6, 2023.
BANGKOK, THAILAND — Hong Kong and its civil society environment have been downgraded by an international rights group nearly three years since China imposed a national security law on the city.
CIVICUS Monitor, a global research group that tracks and rates fundamental freedoms, released its People Power Under Attack 2022 report last Thursday.
After the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019, Beijing imposed the security legislation in an effort to bring back stability. But the law has since been used by authorities to target dissidents, including lawmakers, journalists, and activists.
Hong Kong’s political crackdown in recent years has seen the monitoring group downgrade the territory’s status from “repressed” to “closed,” the worst rating possible.
CIVICUS Monitor says the atmosphere of fear prevails in the Hong Kong, and authorities have routinely imprisoned people for exercising their civil rights of association, free assembly, and expression.
Hong Kong now joins other “closed” civil societies in the Asia Pacific, including Afghanistan, China, Laos, Myanmar, North Korea, and Vietnam in the Civicus rankings.
Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Asia Pacific researcher, included his comments in the report.
“The repressive National Security Law has been systematically deployed to bring trumped-up, politically motivated charges against activists, journalists and other critics and has created a climate of fear in the territory. Further sedition charges have been increasingly used to silence peaceful expression while there has been a relentless campaign against press freedom. The continuous onslaught on civic freedoms by the Hong Kong authorities has prompted the downgrade.”
Michael Mo, a former campaigner for Amnesty Hong Kong - which no longer operates in the city - says the report sums up the situation in Hong Kong today.
“The annual CIVICUS account accurately reflects Hong Kong’s civil society on the ground - a closed one. Apart from dozens of civil society groups that were forced or decided to be disbanded after the draconian National Security Law was enacted in June 2020, international NGOs like Amnesty International and Friedrich Naumann Foundation also left Hong Kong as they could not navigate the vague and catch-all nature of “colluding with foreign forces,” a crime under the security measure.
Elizabeth Tang, center, the former chief executive of the now-disbanded pro-democracy group Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), walks out of the police station along with former Chairperson Joe Wong, left, and former vice-chairperson Leo Tang, right, March 11, 2023.
Mo, a former district councilor in Hong Kong who now lives in Britain, added that the departure of so many civic groups has left those remaining feeling “scattered.”
“Those who remain in Hong Kong are still trying to advocate for non-sensitive issues such as LGBT rights, land and housing supply, and environmental protection. Even so, most of the groups are scattered as there is no umbrella organization or coalition which able to organize an annual march.”
Florence Wong, a spokesperson for Hong Kong’s Security Bureau, told VOA via email, following a request for comment, said the CIVICUS report could not be “further from the truth” and that the security law has “restored stability” to Hong Kong.
“The NSL clearly stipulates that human rights shall be respected and protected in safeguarding national security in the HKSAR; and the HKSAR shall protect the rights and freedoms enjoyed by residents under the Basic Law and the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights as applied to Hong Kong in accordance with the law,” Wong said.
“All law enforcement actions taken by Hong Kong law enforcement agencies are based on evidence, strictly according to the law in respect of the acts of the people or entities concerned, and have nothing to do with their political stance, background or occupation,” Wong added.
Hong Kong's Basic Law is a mini constitution that guarantees that its civil freedoms and rights should remain unchanged for 50 years after Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, which happened in 1997.
Hong Kong has seen a variety of different civic societies and trade unions fold in recent years because of the risks they faced breaking the national security law.
In September, five people from the now-disbanded General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists were sentenced to 19 months in prison over their involvement in producing what were considered seditious publications. The judge who handed down the sentence implied that children reading the publications – a book series that revolves around sheep dealing with wolves from another village - would be told they are the sheep, and that the wolves trying to harm them are Chinese authorities.
Last week two people were arrested for possessing the children’s books.
Christopher Siu-tat Mung is the former chief executive of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, which disbanded in 2021. He says that civil societies in Hong Kong are being dismantled.
“You can see the Chinese government is using some similar patterns to dismantle the main organizations, the pillars of civil society. We have seen a big wave of the union organizations disbanding, and the Hong Kong government is weaponizing the National Security Law and [sedition] colonial law to impose their political control and flatten the existence of our independent trade union movement,” Mung told VOA.
Today Mung lives in Britain and is the executive director of the NGO Hong Kong Labor Rights Monitor. Mung says he feels the civil society space in Hong Kong is changing.
“We have seen the case of the [employees strike at] FoodPanda. They organized themselves through social media without the leading of a trade union organization. There are some newly established small-scale news agencies based on social media. Some of the people are organizing and learning the ropes on discussion forums on a small scale. There are some that left but under are control. They are struggling to survive and keep their voice."
More than 200 people have been arrested under the security law and around 3,000 protesters prosecuted for their participation in peaceful gatherings and protests, according to the CIVICUS report.