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Hong Kong National Security Law Seen as Threat to NGOs

A woman enters the Amnesty International Hong Kong office, after its announcement to close citing China-imposed national security law, in Hong Kong, China Oct. 25, 2021.
A woman enters the Amnesty International Hong Kong office, after its announcement to close citing China-imposed national security law, in Hong Kong, China Oct. 25, 2021.

Last year’s contentious national security law has cast a pall over nongovernment organizations in Hong Kong, including human rights organizations.

Amnesty International shuttered its office - established for 40 years - in the former British colony October 31, a decision experts call “another blow to the human rights situation” in Hong Kong.

Human Rights Watch also left Hong Kong after being penalized by Beijing in retaliation for U.S. legislation in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters in 2019, according to The New York Times.

Amnesty also announced the closure of another regional operation on research, advocacy and campaign work on East and Southeast Asia and Pacific at the end of this year.

Anjhula Mya SIngh Bais, chair of Amnesty’s International Board, said in an October 25 statement that it is “effectively impossible” for them to work “freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government” under the national security law.

“The recent targeting of local human rights and trade union groups signals an intensification of the authorities’ campaign to rid the city of all dissenting voices. It is increasingly difficult for us to keep operating in such an unstable environment,” she said.

The organization accused the authorities of using the national security law “arbitrarily” to restrict the human rights to freedom of expression, assembly and association.

Since the law was implemented in June of last year, over 100 people including opposition politicians, pro-democracy activists and university students have been arrested on charges of terrorism, advocating secession, colluding with foreign forces and subversion.

Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam, however, questioned the link between the law and Amnesty’s and Human Rights Watch’s departure.

“Since the enactment of the National Security Law, different associations and various individuals have explained or justified their actions on the basis of the National Security Law, but there is no way that one could prove that this is exactly the reason for their taking of such a decision,” she said in late October. “Similarly I could not comment on this explanation given by an organization about its departure from Hong Kong.”

She instead reiterated an earlier statement that the controversial law can “safeguard the rights and freedoms” of Hong Kong residents.

British MP Andrew Rosindell said November 15 that Amnesty International has been “a bastion and upholder of human rights, even in the darkest of days” in Hong Kong.

“Amnesty International … has played a vital part in ensuring that people across Hong Kong and Asia have had a powerful voice, a voice that has always been willing to stand up to the government of Hong Kong, as human rights abuses have mounted,” he said in a statement.

In an October 28 article, China’s state media outlet Global Times accused Amnesty International of having an “infamous role in meddling in China’s internal affairs” and “instigating a color revolution” in Hong Kong.

“There is no room for those foreign organizations to engage in subversion through so-called Western human rights and democratic values,” Global Times added.

The human rights situation in the city has been deteriorating, however, since it witnessed its largest pro-democracy movement in 2019, according to Angeli Watt, senior analyst for China, Hong Kong and Taiwan at Freedom House.

“Freedom of association in Hong Kong is increasingly becoming more like mainland China, as staff at local NGOs are subject to arbitrary arrest if they cross the invisible red lines, activists are moving into exile, and international NGOs are forced to work from outside,” Watt told VOA.

Amnesty International said at least 35 groups have disbanded since the law was enacted, while Agence France-Presse put the tally at 50 or more.

“The pattern of raids, arrests and prosecutions against perceived opponents has highlighted how the vagueness of the law can be manipulated to build a case against whomsoever the authorities choose,” said Agnes Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, in a statement.

Rosindell said more human rights organizations will close down.

“I pray that the list will not get longer, but it surely will,” he said in his written statement.

“The national security law has not only undermined existing commitments to protect the freedoms enjoyed by Hongkongers … but it has also potentially restricted any independent organizations from scrutinizing the day-to-day policies of the government without severe repercussions, effectively banning criticism of the government.”

Watt echoed the sentiment.

“With dozens of local NGOs and trade unions disbanding, Hong Kong is not a safe city for human rights work anymore as the national security law is used to target anyone who dissents from the Hong Kong and Chinese governments,” Watt said.

The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the organizer of Hong Kong’s annual June 4 candlelight vigil to commemorate the murdered pro-democracy activists of the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, disbanded in September after 32 years of human rights advocacy.

Chairman Lee Cheuk-yan and vice chairman Albert Ho have been behind bars for assembly-related charges during the 2019 anti-government protests, while another vice chairperson Chow Hang-tung was arrested for promoting an unauthorized vigil.

Another significant civil society group, Civil Human Rights Front, that staged several large-scale protests during the anti-government protests in 2019, also decided in October to shutter after the 19-year-old organization was accused of violating the national security law.

Watt called on countries and private companies to act to pressure China to restore human rights.

“Democratic countries should use targeted, coordinated sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for the erosion of human rights in Hong Kong. Private companies should use their leverage with authorities to push back against their moves, especially as they have relied on for years the freedoms in Hong Kong to make profits,” she said.

The United States has imposed sanctions against Lam, chief secretary John Lee, top law official Teresa Cheng and security secretary Chris Tang since August of last year for what Washington said is Beijing’s role in undermining Hong Kong’s freedoms.