Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China, maintains separate governing and economic systems from those of mainland China under the principle of “one country, two systems.” The Sino-British Joint Declaration signed by China and the United Kingdom in 1984 outlines terms of governance of Hong Kong for at least 50 years after the handover, until 2047. Under the agreement, Chinese national law does not generally apply in the region and Hong Kong is treated as a separate jurisdiction.
In March 2019, Hong Kong’s government introduced plans for changes to legislation that would enable criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. The bill received widespread criticism from many sectors of society concerned that it could undermine Hong Kong’s legal freedoms and might be used to intimidate or silence dissidents. The people of Hong Kong repeatedly protested against the proposed extradition bill. Over a million people flooded the main streets.
The Hong Kong police used the violent acts of a small group as a pretext to classify the largely peaceful protest as an unlawful assembly and specifically a “riot.” Amnesty International verified numerous incidents involving the dangerous use of rubber bullets, officers beating protesters who did not resist, aggressive tactics used by police to obstruct journalists on site, and the misuse of tear gas and pepper spray. Of those arrested, at least 40% were students and over 13% were under 18 years old. Amnesty International also documented evidence of beatings and torture in detention.
On June 30, 2020, China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) passed a new national security law for Hong Kong that entered into force in the territory the same day, just before midnight. The Chinese authorities forced the law through without any accountability or transparency: it was passed just weeks after it was first announced, bypassing Hong Kong’s local legislature, and the text was kept secret from the public and allegedly even the Hong Kong government until after it was enacted.
The national security law (NSL) criminalizes acts of “separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces,” with offenses punishable by a minimum sentence of three years and a maximum of life imprisonment. The law also asserts jurisdiction over alleged offenses committed outside Hong Kong. The law is dangerously vague and broad: virtually anything could be deemed a threat to “national security” under its provisions, and it can apply to anyone on the planet.
Between July 1, 2020 and June 23, 2021, police arrested or ordered the arrest of at least 114 people under the NSL. As of June 23, 2021, 64 people have been formally charged, of whom 45 are presently in pretrial detention.
In June 2021, the premises of Apple Daily, an outspoken Hong Kong media organization, were raided by 500 police officers who took away computers and documents, including some containing journalistic materials. Six of the newspaper’s staff and executives were arrested for their role in the publication of more than 30 articles that called on foreign countries to impose sanctions. All were charged with “colluding with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security” under the NSL. Soon after the raid, the authorities froze HK$18 million (US$2.32 million) of assets owned by companies linked to Apple Daily – leaving it unable to pay staff and forcing its closure.
In September 2021, Hong Kong’s District Court sentenced 12 people to between four and ten months in prison for “unauthorized assembly” in relation to their participation, on June 4, 2020, in the city’s annual vigil to remember the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen square crackdown in Beijing. Then in December 2021, three pro-democracy figures were also convicted for their participation in the vigil. The vigil has been banned for the past two years, ostensibly on Covid-19 grounds.
For more information on Amnesty International’s work on Hong Kong, refer to the links below or contact the AIUSA China Coordination Group.