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Hong Kong

Read A Section: Hong Kong

China | Macau | Tibet

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law of the special administrative region specified that except in matters of defense and foreign affairs, Hong Kong would have a high degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework, but the Chinese Communist Party has systematically dismantled Hong Kong’s political freedoms and autonomy in violation of its international commitments. During the most recent elections, widely regarded by most nonpartisan local and international election observers as free and fair, in November 2019, pandemocratic candidates won control of 17 of 18 District Councils, although the government barred one opposition figure’s candidacy. The turnout, 71 percent of all registered voters, was a record for Hong Kong. In 2017 the 1,194-member Chief Executive Election Committee, dominated by proestablishment electors, selected Carrie Lam to be Hong Kong’s chief executive. In 2016 Hong Kong residents elected the 70 representatives who comprise Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Voters directly elected 40 representatives, while limited-franchise constituencies elected the remaining 30. Legislative Council elections were scheduled to take place in September 2020, but Hong Kong authorities postponed them to September 2021, citing COVID-19 concerns. The National People’s Congress Standing Committee passed a resolution on November 11 disqualifying four standing pandemocratic Legislative Council members with immediate effect and no legal recourse. The 15 remaining pandemocratic members resigned in solidarity, leaving only two members not affiliated with the progovernment camp in the Legislative Council.

The Hong Kong Police Force maintains internal security and reports to the Security Bureau. The Security Bureau and police continue to report to the chief executive in theory, but to implement the National Security Law (see below) imposed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Beijing on June 30, the Hong Kong government established an Office of Safeguarding National Security, a National Security Committee, and a National Security Branch of the Hong Kong police. Because these organs ultimately report to the Chinese central government, and mainland security personnel are reportedly embedded in some of these bodies, the ability of Hong Kong’s civilian authorities to maintain effective control over the security office was no longer clear. Security forces are suspected to have committed some abuses and, after the imposition of the National Security Law, have devoted increasing attention to political cases, including those involving nonviolent protesters, opposition politicians, and activists.

From June 2019 to January 2020, Hong Kong experienced protests, initially drawing more than one million participants, against proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition law with mainland China. Participation in the protests dwindled sharply early in the year and remained low due to the COVID-19 pandemic, police denial of demonstration permits, more aggressive police enforcement tactics, and concern about the National Security Law. China undermined Hong Kong’s autonomy through an escalating erosion of civil liberties and democratic institutions throughout the year. In June, with the support of the Hong Kong chief executive, the Chinese National People’s Congress unilaterally imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong. The National Security Law created four categories of offenses–secession, subversion, terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security–and corresponding penalties. The law has extraterritorial reach. The Office for Safeguarding National Security, which does not fall under the Hong Kong government’s jurisdiction, allows mainland China security elements to operate openly and without accountability to Hong Kong authorities, in contradiction of the spirit and practice of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the “one country, two systems” framework.

Significant human rights issues included: the establishment of national security organs with sweeping powers and negligible public oversight; allegations of police brutality against protesters and persons in custody; arbitrary arrests; politically motivated reprisals against individuals located outside of Hong Kong; serious restrictions on free expression, the press, and the internet; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; use of politically motivated arrests and prosecutions to impose restrictions on departing Hong Kong; the inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; restrictions on political participation; and trafficking in persons.

The government took limited steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses, but refused widespread calls by a large segment of Hong Kong society and others to establish an independent commission to examine allegations of police brutality during the 2019 demonstrations.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were no credible reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits such practices, but there were several reports police physically abused or degraded detainees. In March, Amnesty International reported interviews with multiple alleged victims of police brutality. Police denied these allegations. Protests associated with the lead-up to the implementation of the National Security Law featured multiple clashes between police and protesters, some of which involved physical violence.

In the week of May 25, police arrested approximately 400 protesters, including some 100 minors. During their arrest and detention, officials made no effort to address health concerns created by the COVID-19 pandemic. In a September case demonstrating the more aggressive tactics adopted by police, police were recorded tackling a 12-year-old girl, who fled after police stopped her for questioning.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

There were reports of prison or detention center conditions that raised human rights concerns.

Physical Conditions: According to activists, detained protesters were held at the Castle Peak Immigration Center under unacceptable hygienic conditions and subjected to verbal and mental abuse. In response to a 2019 police brutality allegation and after the September 2019 closure of the San Uk Ling Holding Center, in May the Hong Kong Police Force border commissioner convened a task force to investigate the accusations made by protesters.

Administration: The government investigated allegations of problematic conditions and documented the results in a publicly accessible manner. There was an external Office of the Ombudsman. Activists and legislators, however, urged the government to establish an independent prisoner complaint and monitoring mechanism for prisons and detention centers.

Independent Monitoring: The government generally permitted legislators and justices of the peace to conduct prison visits. Justices of the peace may make suggestions and comments on matters, such as physical conditions, overcrowding, staff improvement, training and recreational programs and activities, and other matters affecting the welfare of inmates.

The Independent Police Complaints Council is the police watchdog, responsible for investigating alleged corruption or abuses. In a November 19 ruling, a court of first instance (trial court) declared the complaints council incapable of effective investigation, as it lacked necessary investigative powers and was insufficient to fulfill the Special Administrative Region (SAR) government’s obligations under the Basic Law to provide an independent mechanism to investigate complaints against police. The SAR government was appealing the ruling.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Several claims of arbitrary arrest were made in connection with the protests and alleged National Security Law (NSL) violations.

At the time of its passage, the Hong Kong SAR and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) claimed the NSL was not retroactive.

On July 1, within hours of the NSL’s passage, police detained individuals based on their attire, searched their belongings, and arrested them for violating the NSL if the items in their possession were deemed to be against the PRC or the local government.

On August 10, police arrested 16 more individuals, including Agnes Chow, one of the cofounders of the former opposition party Demosisto, although Chow and the other two cofounders, Nathan Law and Joshua Wong, disbanded Demosisto the day before the NSL became effective. Chow refrained from political activity after the law was passed. She and human rights activist concluded that her arrest meant that the national security forces were retroactively applying the NSL.

During a protest on October 1, Chinese National Day, police reportedly indiscriminately rounded up persons in a popular shopping district, despite having no evidence that those individuals participated in the protest.

The Hong Kong Police Force maintains internal security and reports to the SAR’s security bureau. The People’s Liberation Army is responsible for foreign defense. The immigration department of the security bureau controls passage of persons into and out of the SAR as well as the documentation of local residents. All Hong Kong security services, in theory, ultimately report to the chief executive, but following the implementation of the NSL imposed by Beijing, the SAR established an Office of Safeguarding National Security, a National Security Committee, and a National Security branch of the Hong Kong police. Because these organs ultimately report to the Chinese central government and mainland security personnel are present in some or all of these bodies, the ability of SAR civilian authorities to maintain effective control over the security force was no longer clear.

Multiple sources reported suspected members of the Chinese central government security services in the SAR monitoring political activists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and academics who criticized the Chinese central government’s policies.

Although the Independent Police Complaints Council is supposed to be an independent investigatory body responsible for addressing accusations of police corruption or abuses, activists expressed concern that the chief executive appointed all council members and noted that its lack of power to conduct independent investigations limited its oversight capacity. There was wide public support for the establishment of a commission of inquiry into alleged police abuses in handling the protests. In May the council released its report on the police response to the 2019 protests and claimed that while there was room for improvement, and acknowledging some specific flaws in police operations, such as excessive and indiscriminate use of tear gas, there were no systematic abuses and the police force acted in accordance with the law. The report did not address any specific cases of alleged abuse; the council chose to address police actions “thematically” by looking at major incidents during the period of protest.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

Police generally apprehended suspects openly when they observed suspects committing a crime or with warrants based on sufficient evidence and issued by a duly authorized official. Police must promptly charge arrested suspects. The government respected this right and generally brought arrested persons before a judicial officer within 48 hours. Detainees were generally informed promptly of charges against them. There was a functioning bail system that allowed persons not charged to put up bail to be released from detention pending the filing of charges. Activists argued that the bail system left the arrested in purgatory–not officially charged but with a monthly check-in requirement and no defined period under the law within which the government is required to file charges. During routine check-ins, activists and protesters have been rearrested, often having new charges brought against them.

For example, in August 2019, Joshua Wong was arrested, charged with organizing an illegal assembly, and released on bail. Following his release, during a routine bail check-in held in September, Wong was rearrested and charged for a nearly one-year-old violation of the 2019 antimask emergency regulation. Wong was convicted of the initial charge of organizing an illegal assembly and sentenced to 13.5 months’ imprisonment on December 2.

Democracy activists were increasingly denied bail. In December during a routine bail check-in, media owner and democracy activist Jimmy Lai was arrested on fraud charges related to the use of office space and denied bail. Legal scholars noted bail denial is unusual in civil suits; Lai was subsequently charged on December 11 under the NSL. The NSL sets a higher standard for bail than do other laws, and in one case, activists alleged that this higher standard violated the presumption of innocence. The court, however, found that the defendant in that case would have been denied bail even under the pre-existing standards of Hong Kong law.

Authorities allowed detainees access to a lawyer of their choice, although the Hong Kong Bar Association reported that lawyers experienced obstruction at police stations and delays in seeing clients arrested during protests. Suspects were not detained incommunicado or held under house arrest. Interviews of suspects are required to be videotaped.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the law generally provides for an independent judiciary, there were indications that this independence was being challenged. As it did for the police force, the Department of Justice set up a separate office that deals with NSL prosecutions. There were media reports that this office also managed certain prosecutions against opposition activists not charged under the NSL. Activists voiced concern that those charged under the NSL may be denied a fair and public trial, as the NSL allows extradition to the mainland for trial. Chinese Communist Party mouthpieces in Hong Kong put pressure on the judiciary to accept more “guidance” from the government and called for extradition to the mainland in at least one high-profile case; they also criticized sentences deemed too lenient. Arrests made by police and the prosecutions pursued by the Justice Department appeared to be increasingly politically motivated in nature.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary largely enforced this right. Defendants have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges against them and the right to a trial without undue delay.

Defendants are presumed innocent, except in official corruption cases: Under the law a sitting or former government official who maintains a standard of living above that commensurate with an official income or who controls monies or property disproportionate to an official income is considered guilty of an offense unless the official can satisfactorily explain the discrepancy. The courts upheld this ordinance. Trials are by jury except at the magistrate and district court level. An attorney is provided at public expense if defendants cannot afford counsel. Defendants have adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense. The government conducted court proceedings in either Cantonese or English, the SAR’s two official languages. The government provided interpretation service to those not conversant in Cantonese or English during all criminal court proceedings. Defendants could confront and question witnesses testifying against them and present witnesses to testify on their own behalf. Defendants have the right not to be compelled to testify or confess guilt, the right to be present at their trial, and the right of appeal.

The SAR’s courts are charged with interpreting those provisions of the Basic Law that address matters within the limits of the SAR’s autonomy. SAR courts also interpret provisions of the Basic Law that relate to central government responsibilities or the relationship between the central authorities and the SAR. The Court of Final Appeal may seek an interpretation of relevant provisions from the PRC central government’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC). SAR courts must by law follow the standing committee’s interpretations in cases involving central government jurisdiction, although judgments previously rendered are not affected. The standing committee has issued five interpretations of the Basic Law since 1997. The most recent, issued in 2016, requires lawmakers “to accurately, completely, and solemnly” swear an oath to uphold the Basic Law and recognize the Hong Kong SAR as a part of China before taking office. This ruling was the basis, in 2017, for disqualifying six opposition figures from taking their Legislative Council seats.

Under the NSL the chief executive provides a list of judges eligible to hear NSL cases. The NPC Standing Committee determines how the NSL is interpreted, not a SAR-based judiciary or elected body. The standing committee has the power in certain cases to extradite the accused to the mainland and hold trials behind closed doors. As of November, no cases have come to trial to validate or negate apprehensions about the NSL trial mechanisms.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

Activists claimed the SAR increasingly used legal tools, such as denial of bail and pursuing minor charges, to detain prodemocracy figures. In one such case, the courts denied Jimmy Lai bail for fraud charges, which is a civil offense. While in custody, security forces charged Lai with “foreign collusion” under the NSL, a provision that is not well defined.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

The NSL is not restricted to the SAR or its residents, but instead claims jurisdiction over any individual, regardless of location, deemed to be engaged in one of the four criminal activities under the NSL: secession, subversion, terrorist activities, or collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security. In August the national security forces purportedly issued arrest warrants for six individuals, all residing abroad, and one of whom had foreign citizenship and had resided outside the SAR and mainland China for more than 20 years. Although reported in state-controlled media, the government refused to acknowledge the existence of the warrants.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, but the government regularly encroached upon this right. Although an independent press, an impartial judiciary, and unfettered internet combined to permit freedom of expression, including for the press, on most matters, human rights advocates claimed that those rights were increasingly jeopardized or already being eroded. Some SAR and Chinese central government actions restricted or sought to restrict the right to express or report on dissenting political views, particularly support for Hong Kong independence or self-determination.

Freedom of Speech: There were legal restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government publicly without reprisal. In July some of the initial NSL arrests included individuals carrying stickers and signs with slogans critical of the government. In September the government charged an activist for chanting antigovernment slogans under a colonial-era sedition statute that had not been used since the SAR’s handover to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. Hong Kong activists and legal scholars raised concerns that the sedition statute is incompatible with the freedoms listed in Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights.

Requirements for electoral candidacy and for taking the oath of office also limited free speech in the political arena. For example, since 2016 the Electoral Affairs Commission requires all Legislative Council candidates, in order to run for office, to sign a pledge stating the SAR is an “inalienable part” of China. In July the commission disqualified several candidates for speech made before passage of the NSL. In November the NPC Standing Committee in Beijing issued a decision that any public or elected officials found to be engaged in “unpatriotic” behavior, including speech, would immediately be disqualified for the positions they held. The decision was applied to four sitting Legislative Council members earlier disqualified for running for re-election. The SAR government subsequently announced the four members were immediately disqualified for the remainder of the Legislative Council session. There was no judicial recourse.

In November the government announced plans to require all civil servants to swear oaths of loyalty to the SAR government and the Basic Law. Government officials began to conduct the oaths in December. According to media reports, civil servants may lose their jobs if they refuse to swear the oath and may face criminal charges, including under the NSL, if they later engage in behavior, including speech, deemed to violate the oaths. Hong Kong authorities and Beijing officials insinuated that interactions with foreign diplomats could be considered “collusion” under the NSL.

Any speech critical of the central or local government or its policies may be construed as prosecession, subversive, or inciting hate against the government. On November 8, when a crowd of protesters chanted protest slogans as they gathered to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of student Chow Tsz-lok, whose cause of death remained unknown but occurred in the proximity of protests, police warned protesters that their actions could violate both the NSL and COVID-19 restrictions.

Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, although they were increasingly constrained. In August, Hong Kong immigration authorities denied a visa to Hong Kong-based Irish journalist Aaron McNicholas, the newly selected editor of the Hong Kong Free Press news website. In September, SAR police told media organizations that journalists would henceforth have to be credentialed by and registered with police to cover public events, such as demonstrations or conferences. Police claimed this was required to deter “fake” reporters at protests, while media advocates stated that the SAR’s real objective was to control access to information. The Foreign Correspondents’ Club stated that the change disregards the vetting and membership processes of Hong Kong’s independent journalist associations.

SAR police in November arrested a producer of a documentary on a violent incident in 2019, when rod-wielding men attacked protesters at the Yuen Long subway station. Activists and protesters claimed that police were deliberately slow to respond to the incident; many accused police of colluding with the mob. Police arrested the producer for violating a traffic ordinance by using license plate information from a publicly available government website to identify owners of vehicles, including police, near the subway station. Media outlets reported that for years many journalists routinely used the website to inform their reporting. While the law exists, authorities did not enforce it until after reportedly changing the website to remove the option of stating such research was for journalistic purposes.

Violence and Harassment: On August 10, Jimmy Lai, owner of the independent newspaper Apple Daily, as well as his two sons and four senior executives, were arrested on suspicion of fraud. All were subsequently released on bail. That same day, police raided the Apple Daily offices, permitting only progovernment journalists to cover their search. A court later found the search and seizure of reporting material illegal and required it be returned. In 2019 the personal information of 132 members of Apple Dailys staff was published online anonymously; the newspaper reported that its investigation traced the leak to PRC national security agencies. Several journalists from other outlets alleged that police detained, assaulted, or harassed them, a claim supported by the NGO Committee to Protect Journalists.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Reports of media self-censorship and suspected content control continued. Some media outlets, bookstores, and publishers were owned by companies with business interests on the mainland or by companies directly controlled by the Chinese central government, a situation that led to claims they were vulnerable to self-censorship. In August staff at i-Cable Communications Limited, a television and internet broadcaster, protested management’s decision to replace several executives and the news director with persons perceived as more progovernment. Former i-Cable staff reported that the coverage and editing of stories were increasingly designed to reduce the presence of pro-opposition themes and personalities. In May the public broadcasting service Radio Television Hong Kong suspended a satirical television program after the Communications Authority issued it a warning for “denigration of and insult to police,” reportedly after pressure from the police commissioner. In September, Radio Television Hong Kong extended the employment probation of a reporter following complaints from progovernment groups about her tough questioning of SAR officials. In December there were media reports that a Hong Kong bookstore chain refused to stock a book on Hong Kong history because of concerns about the NSL.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association. The government, however, restricted public gatherings, claiming COVID-19 concerns.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

While the law provides for freedom of peaceful assembly, the government cited COVID-19 restrictions to ban peaceful assembly, although civil rights organizations stated the denial was based more on political than public-health considerations. Before 2019 police routinely issued the required “letter of no objection” for public meetings and demonstrations, including those critical of the SAR and central government. After violence occurred during some of the 2019 protests, police issued letters of objection against several gatherings, including large protest marches.

In April police arrested 15 high-profile prodemocracy leaders, including former chairs of the Democratic and Labor parties, for “organizing and participating in unlawful assembly” in 2019.

Because of the strict limits on any public gathering due to health restrictions, police have not issued any “letters of no objection” for public demonstrations since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. For the first time since 1990, police denied a permit for a June 4 Tiananmen Square vigil, citing social distancing concerns. Police also refused to allow the Chinese National Day prodemocracy protest in October, although official gatherings did take place. Protesters marched in defiance of the ban, flanked by a heavy police presence; there were dozens of arrests.

Freedom of Association

SAR law provides for freedom of association, but the government did not always respect it if the group was deemed a national security concern. Several proindependence political parties and activist groups disbanded in June after the NSL was announced, due to fear their freedom of association would no longer be respected.

Under the law any person claiming to be an officer of a banned group may be sentenced to a maximum of three years in prison and fined. Those convicted of providing meeting space or other aid to a banned group may also be sentenced to fines and jail time.

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