The United Kingdom has reiterated its concern over China’s approach to Hong Kong, accusing Beijing of eroding the territory’s rights and freedoms and breaching the international treaty under which the one-time British colony was returned to China, prompting angry reactions from Beijing and Hong Kong.
In the latest six-monthly assessment of the situation in Hong Kong [PDF], the UK government cited events including the closely-controlled process under which John Lee became the territory’s new leader, the continued arrest and prosecution “of those who dissent” and ongoing national security trials as evidence of the deterioration of Hong Kong’s political and civic life.
The report, released on Thursday in the UK, covered the period from January to June 2022.
“Hong Kong’s autonomy is declining, and the pervasive, chilling effect of the National Security Law seeps into all aspects of society,” Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said in his introduction to the report.
“Freedoms are being systematically eroded by Beijing on multiple fronts, tightening the restrictions on the lives of ordinary Hong Kongers.”
China imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong in June 2020, following mass protests the year before that sometimes turned violent.
The broadly-worded law punishes “terrorism”, collusion with foreign forces, subversion and secession with possible life in prison, limiting the chance for defendants to secure bail and removing jury trials. Critics say the law has been used to crack down on dissent with human rights group Amnesty International, which closed its office in the territory in 2021, arguing Hong Kong was on the road to becoming a police state.
The latest analysis from the UK government drew angry condemnation from Hong Kong’s government as well as Beijing officials.
In a statement late on Thursday, the Hong Kong government said it “vehemently refutes the slandering remarks and ill-intentioned political attacks” in the UK’s report.
Hong Kong is an “inalienable part of the People’s Republic of China”, it said, accusing the UK of interfering in the territory’s affairs and urging it “to respect the basic norms governing international relations”.
The Chinese Embassy in the UK echoed those comments, saying the UK report “distorted facts, grossly interfered in Hong Kong affairs, which are China’s internal affairs, and seriously violated the basic norms governing international relations”.
The UK government began the six-monthly update after the territory was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with Beijing promising to respect Hong Kong’s high autonomy and distinctive way of life for at least 50 years. While the territory has never been a democracy, its people long enjoyed rights and freedoms unknown on the mainland.
“There is no doubt that China is failing to comply with the Sino-British Joint Declaration [PDF],” Cleverly said in his remarks. “Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms have been sacrificed to facilitate greater control by Beijing, undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. China is diminishing the way of life promised to Hong Kong 25 years ago.”
The UK said it was closely watching the case of pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who also has UK citizenship, and whose decision to retain a British barrister was rejected by the Hong Kong government even after its own courts upheld the request.
The lawyer, Timothy Owen, does not ordinarily practise in the territory but had been allowed to do so on an ad hoc basis.
Hong Kong’s government insisted that his presence would constitute a risk to “national security” given the nature of the trial, and Lee referred the issue to the Standing Committee of Beijing’s National People’s Congress at the end of November – just before Lai’s trial under the security law was due to start.
At the end of December the NPCSC announced its findings, and did not expressly bar foreign lawyers. Instead, it said Hong Kong and its Committee for Safeguarding National Security had the power to “make judgements and decisions” over whether an issue involved national security, and reiterated that the Hong Kong committee’s decisions were not subject to judicial review.
“We will watch closely how the Chief Executive implements the decision,” Cleverly said.
The trial of Lai, the founder of the hugely popular Apple Daily, which was closed in 2021, is now due to start in September.
Cleverly said while the UK was prepared to “work constructively” with Lee it would “judge the Hong Kong government based on its actions”.
“We call on the Chief Executive to respect rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, and to uphold the rule of law. It is in China’s interests that Hong Kong maintain its distinctiveness,” he said.