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December 6, 2021

Hong Kong’s National Security Law Made Amnesty International’s Departure All But Inevitable

Deeply saddened, but not surprised.

That was my main reaction when I awoke on October 25 to the news that Amnesty International would be closing both of its offices in Hong Kong. It would be shutting down its local branch by the end of the month, and the office for East Asia, also located in Hong Kong, would cease operations there by the end of 2021.

In 2014, Amnesty International hired me as a China researcher, and I later became a business and human rights analyst in 2018. As someone who had lived in Hong Kong since 2007, I was one of the beneficiaries of Amnesty International’s “Moving Closer to the Ground” restructuring process, which took place in the mid-2010s. The main idea of this process was to downsize Amnesty’s London headquarters and build up regional offices and local capacity to get closer to local realities, closer to media markets and civil society around the world.

Hong Kong, with its strong reputation for rule of law, civil society, and respect for freedom of expression, was an obvious choice for an office in East Asia. Its ranks would grow from just a handful of people in the early 2010’s to around 30 by the end of that decade. Hong Kong was a great perch from which to document human rights in China, North Korea, South Korea, and Japan—the main countries our office monitored.

The international community, including donors and human rights organizations, had often overlooked and underprioritized the human rights situation in Hong Kong. It would have been hard to imagine just 10 years ago that these festering human rights issues would eventually imperil the stability needed to maintain an office there.

* * *

The introduction of Hong Kong’s National Security Law (NSL) in July of 2020 changed everything.

Upon reading the law, civil society members in Hong Kong overwhelming believed that it had been written in deliberately broad brushstrokes, with vague terminology that gave vast new powers to the Central government. They understood the law’s lack of legality—the principle in international law that holds laws should be written with enough precision to enable people to know how they can avoid unlawful behavior—to be a feature and not a bug. Zhang Xiaoming, the deputy director of the mainland government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, called it a “sword of Damocles” to be used against “extremely few criminals.”

Thus, analysts within civil society, including people within Amnesty, had to base their risk assessments not on what the law said per se, but rather on Beijing’s ultimate intentions and the likely targets of the law.

In private conversations with people working in civil society, some told me they thought that the law might be used somewhat cautiously. They thought the law would most likely be used against people and groups perceived to be Beijing’s main targets, such as what China state media dubbed the “Destroying Hong Kong Gang of Four”: media tycoon Jimmy Lai, founder of the Democratic Party Martin Lee, former Democracy Party Legco member and Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China leader Albert Ho, and former Chief Secretary Anson Chan. These senior leaders, who had been some of the most visible pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong for decades, ironically were blamed for the chaos of the leaderless and youth-led 2019 protests. People who thought the law might be used sparingly also thought that it would be used to deter any continuing violent and non-violent protests like those of 2019, but that a broader application would imperil Hong Kong’s reputation as a financial hub. Others, including myself, argued that the law’s text contained signals that after targeting the people who had been publicly scapegoated for the 2019 protests it was only a matter of time until the authorities would carry out a sweeping rectification of Hong Kong politics, society, education, and culture.

Pro-establishment figures had long advocated for “patriotic education” and blamed the teaching of “liberal studies,” a compulsory course in Hong Kong since 2009 designed to cultivate critical thinking, for fostering a generation of rebellious youth. Indeed, Joshua Wong and his colleagues got their start in activism in 2011 and 2012 by campaigning against “moral and national education,” or what they considered “brainwashing,” in schools.

Given that context, Article 10’s insistence that the government “promote national security education in schools and universities” suggested an intent to remake the education system and unilaterally resolve the contentious debate about national education that had brewed nearly a decade earlier. The police, the Department of Justice, and the Financial Secretary would all have new mandates on national security. And most ominously for civil society, Article 54 charged a newly created Office for Safeguarding National Security with working to “. . . take necessary measures to strengthen the management of and services for organs of foreign countries and international organisations in the Region, as well as non-governmental organisations and news agencies of foreign countries and from outside the mainland.”

In other words, this article hinted that the law’s long-term goal was to bring the “management” of foreign NGOs in line with its practice in mainland China where the Foreign NGO Law and the security apparatus has made it extremely onerous, if not in some cases impossible, for independent civil society organizations to operate.

When the NSL went into effect on July 1, 2020, many friends in civil society simply had no idea what to expect, and this caused fear and anxiety. Some friends immediately left the city. Others were determined not to be cowed, while many took a “wait and see” approach regarding how far Beijing would go.

But quickly, the question of how far Beijing would go flipped, so that people began asking what deterred Beijing from acting in the first place.

China’s leadership unquestionably knew the law’s introduction would tarnish the country’s image. Hong Kong was “Asia’s World City”; its reputation for stability and the rule of law underpinning its status as a financial hub, presumably securing its value to Beijing. China’s leaders had been invested in the success of the “One Country, Two Systems” formula, which they had portrayed as an innovative solution to a difficult question “left over from history”: how to secure China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong while allowing Hong Kong residents to continue to maintain their own economic and social systems. The Chinese government’s international reputation was also on the line. A massive legal restructuring of Hong Kong would obviously violate the China-UK Joint Declaration, which stated that Hong Kong would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy.”

Arguably, all of these factors favoring restraint were tested by broad opposition to Beijing’s stark rejection of universal suffrage in 2014, and especially as the 2019 pro-democracy protests became more violent and Hong Kong’s supplicant political leadership showed it lacked the skills, vision, and mandate to cope with the ensuing crisis.

The very tenuous factor of restraint based on reputational risks for Beijing on the international stage—in my view, one of the main factors preventing a swift crushing of the protests—perhaps seemed less salient to China’s leaders amid President Donald Trump’s inflammatory statements about China in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. This had been a sharp turn-around, after dampening U.S. criticisms of China’s (including Hong Kong’s) human rights when the Trump administration was working to secure a trade deal.

The law’s timing may also have seemed to Beijing likely to blunt international response.

Beijing decided to introduce the NSL just as Europe and the U.S. were in the midst of responding to the onset of COVID-19 in May 2020, too preoccupied at home to attend to politics abroad.

After the implementation of the law, it was hard for me to see how a new sense of restraint could be regained. Beijing could use the law, and the newly created Office for Safeguarding National Security and other refocused government departments, to achieve many of its long-sought-after goals that had eluded the Central Government under the limited democratic politics and common law system before the NSL.

Hong Kong, like the mainland, seemed poised to enter a “New Era.”

While I have no insider knowledge of the deliberations that took place at Amnesty after I left in February, I’m hardly surprised that the organization’s leadership eventually decided it had become “effectively impossible for human rights organizations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government.”

Publications run by the Chinese government often claimed, as the Global Times did, that Amnesty was “subversive.” To Amnesty insiders, however, this criticism appears farcical, since the organization has a notoriously strict group of law and policy colleagues who review all outputs to ensure that Amnesty’s criticisms—whether about U.S. police failures to protect fundamental rights during the George Floyd protests, abuses in cobalt mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or enforced disappearances in Pakistan—are always based on international laws and standards. These colleagues try to ensure that Amnesty’s human rights analysis is as consistent as possible across the countries Amnesty works on and has no political agenda besides urging states to abide by their human rights obligations. For the past few years, the Chinese government has dismissed such legitimate criticism of its domestic human rights violations in its criminal justice system as “interference” in its “judicial sovereignty.” The NSL could escalate that trend: Its Article 38 criminalizes such criticism made by anyone globally, even outside of China.

In other words, the blatant human rights violations being committed now under the NSL—detention of pro-democracy Legco members, detention of the Hong Kong Alliance members, and prosecutions purely based on non-violent political views—only demonstrate China’s decision to drift further away from compliance with international human rights law. Rather, the NSL’s claim to global jurisdiction signals an increased willingness to engage in counterattacks against critics and to undermine the international human rights system.

Amnesty’s departure from Hong Kong will have fall-out far beyond the mere absence of the group on the ground. In the fragile, increasingly imperiled ecosystem of the territory’s civil society, each time a group collapses it adds strain on the groups that remain. Of course, people within Amnesty were aware of this stark reality, and I’m sure made their decision with a heavy heart.

The vibrant and exciting Hong Kong many of us once knew is now gone, but Hong Kong is not “dead.” 7.5 million people still live in Hong Kong, and their struggles for justice and human rights will continue. It will be vital, going forward, that the international community continue to pay attention to the human rights situation in the region.


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William Nee is the Research and Advocacy Coordinator at Chinese Human Rights Defenders (CHRD), where he carries out research regarding a wide array of human rights concerns impacting human rights...