Once forced into a low-key existence, the Chinese Communist Party has become increasingly assertive in the territory.
Authorities in Hong Kong are using the national security law that China imposed a year ago to crack down on legitimate dissent, “decimate” the territory’s freedoms and create a climate of fear, Amnesty International said in a report released on Tuesday.
The broadly-worded National Security Law (NSL) punishes activities deemed subversion, terrorism, collusion with foreign forces and secession with up to life in prison.
China and Hong Kong said the legislation was necessary to restore stability to the semi-autonomous territory after pro-democracy protests in 2019 that sometimes turned violent, and that only a small number of people would be affected.
But in its report, In the Name of National Security, Amnesty said at least 118 people had been arrested in relation to the NSL since it came into force and that the government had “continued to arrest and charge individuals under the NSL solely because they have exercised their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association”.
Most of those arrested are pro-democracy activists and politicians including a group who were arrested for organising a primary to choose their own candidates for Legislative Council elections that were later postponed. In November, four pro-democracy members of the territory’s legislature were disqualified from their seats in the chamber – accused of ‘endangering national security‘.
“In one year, the National Security Law has put Hong Kong on a rapid path to becoming a police state and created a human rights emergency for the people living there,” Yamini Mishra, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific regional director, said in a statement.
“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.”
Amnesty based its report on analysis of court judgments, court hearing notes and interviews with activists targeted under the security law during the past 12 months.
It found that the government had “repeatedly used ‘national security’ as a pretext to justify censorship, harassment, arrests and prosecutions”.
“There is clear evidence indicating that the so-called human rights safeguards set out in the NSL are effectively useless, while the protections existing in regular Hong Kong law are also trumped by it,” the report said.
People charged under the law are denied bail unless they can prove they will not “continue to commit acts endangering national security” and Amnesty said that 70 percent of those officially prosecuted under the security legislation are being held on remand. It noted that the presumption of innocence is an “essential part of the right to fair trial”.
Among those held under the NSL are Jimmy Lai, the retail tycoon turned media mogul who founded the pro-democracy tabloid Apple Daily. After being briefly allowed bail under strict conditions that amounted to house arrest, 73-year-old Lai was returned to jail in December. The Apple Daily itself shut down last week after its editor and top executives were also arrested under the NSL and the company’s assets frozen – also under the law – which meant it was unable to pay staff and vendors despite having the money to do so.
Amnesty said that as of 23 June 2021, 64 people had been formally charged under the law with 47 in pre-trial detention.