By: Joy Park, Legal Counsel — Asia, The Human Rights Foundation
Last weekend, Americans celebrated their independence from the United Kingdom with backyard barbecues and fireworks. This year, on the First of July, people in Hong Kong, a former colony of the United Kingdom, were meant to celebrate the city’s return to China in 1997. During the handover ceremony, when China’s flag flew over Hong Kong for the first time in more than a century, many imagined that this anniversary would come to represent a similar sense of celebration for Hongkongers.
Indeed, the first few years were celebratory. The flag-raising ceremonies and fireworks displays over Victoria Harbour were proud moments for many of the people of Hong Kong. But nearly 22 years after the Chinese Communist Party first introduced its “one country, two systems” policy, the hope for any real autonomy has faded and, instead of celebrating independence, Hongkongers regularly gather on the streets to protest its erosion. The First of July now resembles a day of collective mourning.
That is exactly what played out, yet again, three days ago, when up to half-a-million people poured onto the streets in Hong Kong to demonstrate against the city’s loss of freedom over the past 20 years. Online, netizens decorated their profile photos and displayed artwork with the black and white wilted Bauhinia flag, a bleak interpretation of Hong Kong’s red and white flag. The citizens of Hong Kong were protesting Beijing’s latest encroachment on the city’s autonomy — a move that would allow the government to extradite those who have violated China’s laws to the mainland to stand trial, where the communist regime regularly imprisons dissidents without cause.
The July First protest was not the only time the people of Hong Kong took to the streets to challenge the proposed extradition law. During the month of June, more than one million people marched peacefully to demand that Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, scrap the proposed legislation. When clashes between police and protesters broke out, the government was quick to call the demonstrations “riots,” despite photos and videos of police firing tear gas and beating ordinary citizens.
Labeling these protests as riots angered the public and misrepresented the nature of the demonstrations. It also raised the potential for future criminal prosecution, which is what happened to the organizers of 2014’s Umbrella Movement. At that time, the government turned to rarely-used common law incitement charges to jail some of the movement’s organizers. Four of the “Umbrella Nine” are currently serving prison sentences: professor Benny Tai, retired professor Chan Kin-man, social worker Shiu Ka-chun, and activist Raphael Wong. During the 2016 Mongkok Unrest, police quickly classified the event as a riot, paving the way for an easier conviction.
The persecution of the Umbrella Nine — who never participated in violence — is a violation of the fundamental right to freedom of peaceful assembly. Yesterday, the Human Rights Foundation submitted an individual complaint to one of the United Nations Human Rights Council’s special procedures, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD), on behalf of the four organizers currently in prison. The WGAD’s mandate is to investigate cases of arbitrary detention that are contrary to the protections outlined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Just as peaceful protesters have taught themselves to mobilize more efficiently, the Hong Kong government has also adapted and is now able to expedite its prosecution of demonstrators, peaceful or not, and deter future large-scale protests. The Hong Kong government is adopting an increasingly authoritarian approach and thus ignoring that the implementation of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) is written into the Hong Kong Basic Law.
International legal standards safeguard the fundamental right to peaceful assembly. The police response to the recent events in Hong Kong was not proportional and it was directed at crowds of peaceful protesters, when it should have been limited to individuals responsible for property damage and other acts of violence. Soon, the Hong Kong government will have its own sizable collection of political prisoners, the result of which will be a deluge of international criticism as well as a loss of the foreign investment that serves as the backbone of the city’s economy. If Carrie Lam’s administration wishes to maintain Hong Kong’s status as an international center of finance, it must change its approach towards peaceful demonstrations. Otherwise, the migration of faith in the flag that flies over Hong Kong will continue to shift from red to black.