“Hong Kong Will Become Xinjiang! Stanley Will Become Qincheng,” read placards held by protesters in Hong Kong, after China’s parliament moved to impose new national security legislation on the city, entirely bypassing Hong Kong’s own legislative process.
Stanley and Qincheng are maximum-security prisons in Hong Kong and mainland China, respectively. Qincheng, located in northwest Beijing, is the infamous facility where numerous human rights defenders and political activists have been jailed, including the late Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo. Xinjiang is the site of an ongoing systematic campaign of mass arbitrary detention, political indoctrination, and invasive surveillance targeting Uyghurs and other predominantly Muslim minorities.
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The spectre of being barred from overseas travel, forced to delete social media content, disappeared, detained and held in a secret location, tortured, prosecuted or jailed simply because of one’s identity or exercise of human rights guaranteed under local laws is now looming over Hong Kong. Beijing’s proposed legislation would also enable the mainland government’s national security agencies, which are known perpetrators of these abuses, to set up branches and enforce related laws in Hong Kong.
Hong Kongers know all too well what China does to ethnic minorities, government critics, and democracy advocates in the mainland, who are painted by state media and authorities as “separatists”, “terrorists”, “extremists”, “subversives”, and “traitors who collude with foreign hostile forces”, just to name a few of Beijing’s favourite labels.
Tibetan human rights defender Tashi Wangchuk was detained in 2016 and jailed for five years in 2018 for “inciting separatism”. His so-called “crime”? Giving interviews to the New York Times and asking Chinese officials to comply with their own constitution and laws to preserve the use of the Tibetan language in schools in Tibetan populated areas.
Human rights defender Cao Shunliwas taken by police at the Beijing airport in September 2013 as she was preparing to board a flight to Switzerland to take part in training on UN human rights mechanisms. She died of organ failure in a hospital in March 2014 after not receiving adequate medical care while in detention. Her “crime”? Organising sit-ins and campaigning for greater public participation in the drafting of China’s human rights reports.
Cao Shunli’s fellow human rights defender Chen Jianfang was detained by police in March 2019 and is now awaiting trial for “inciting subversion of state power”. Her “crimes” have not been revealed by the authorities, but shortly before her detention, she published an article commemorating Cao’s death. Chen has been denied access to her lawyer, a discretionary power granted to the police under Chinese law in cases involving “national security” crimes.
In April, Hong Kong authorities detained 15 pro-democracy activists and charged them with offences relating to “unlawful assemblies”. The kinds of peaceful advocacy these 15 activists have engaged in would have long ago landed them in jail or worse if they had been subject to mainland China’s jurisdiction.
Mainland China’s national security, public order, and counterterrorism legal framework is infamous for vague and ill-defined provisions that are inconsistent with international human rights law. They are often used to criminalise peaceful and legitimate actions, including those in defence of human rights. Holding public protests, criticising the government online, drawing political satire cartoons, archiving censored online content, organising private meetings to discuss politics, cooperating with UN mechanisms, issuing open letters calling for democratic reforms – these legitimate actions have all been subject to reprisals under Chinese law.
China’s use of national security legislation to silence and eliminate any form of dissent or opposition is well-documented. The decision adopted by China’s rubber-stamp Parliament on May 28 by a vote of 2,878-1 provides an outline of the upcoming Hong Kong law, and it closely reflects the draconian provisions of the mainland government’s current legal framework. Therefore, there is no reason to believe that the eventual legislation will be compatible with international human rights obligations, including those that are binding on Hong Kong, where the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and other human rights treaties apply.
In fact, provisions related to anti-terrorism and sedition under existing laws in Hong Kong are already inconsistent with international standards. These serious flaws were highlighted in a letter in April to the Hong Kong authorities from six UN human rights experts. The experts warned that human rights defenders and civil society groups are “at particular risk of being silenced by counterterrorism legislation”.
The mainland government’s national security proposal for Hong Kong will not only be a gross violation of Beijing’s treaty obligations to ensure Hong Kong’s “high-degree of autonomy” under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, but will also add another legal cudgel to the authorities’ toolbox designed to bludgeon critics and activists into silence.
Over the years, people in Hong Kong, including human rights defenders, have shown remarkable courage and commitment to defend their rights in the face of government attempts to hollow out the rule of law and democratic traditions that have made Hong Kong an anathema to the authoritarians ruling mainland China.
They took to the streets in large numbers and deterred a proposed national security law in 2003. They built the Umbrella Movement in 2014 to demand the right to universal suffrage in free and fair elections. And they came out again, braving brutal police violence, to successfully oppose the controversial extradition bill amendments introduced last year.
They have also come out in the tens of thousands every year on June 4 to demand justice for the Tiananmen Square massacres in 1989, the public commemoration of which may very well be considered a “crime” once Beijing’s national security law is formally enacted in Hong Kong.
Now, an existential threat is staring Hong Kong in the face. Even with a global pandemic hanging over their heads, Hong Kongers will no doubt be standing up again. From whom can they find support?
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.