Hong Kong Finds Its Voice at the UN—And Uses It to Cheerlead for Beijing

Last May, in a meeting room at the United Nations in Geneva, I sat and listened as a delegate from my hometown of Hong Kong called me a liar. I was there as a representative from the civil society organization Hong Kong Watch, participating in a session on discrimination against women in China—which included the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR).

In her opening remarks to the assembled UN experts, Hong Kong delegate Shirley Lam, Permanent Secretary for Home and Youth Affairs, minced no words as she derided reports I had personally fact-checked. “Chairperson and members, apart from celebrating Hong Kong women’s achievements in the past decade, I would also like to take the chance to address certain comments against the HKSAR in some NGO (non-governmental organization) submissions to the Committee,” she said. “Many of the statements in these submissions are based on false information and distorted narratives regardless of the truth, with flawed comments on the situation in Hong Kong.”

As I listened to her speak, it seemed to me that she spent much more time denigrating NGO participation than on the topic of women’s rights. The message was clear: The HKSAR’s official narrative is the only acceptable one, and anyone who says otherwise will be attacked.

While this sort of behavior at the UN has long been the standard for delegates from mainland China, it represents a departure for delegates from Hong Kong. Since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) passed the Hong Kong National Security Law (NSL) in 2020, Hong Kong has fundamentally shifted its posture at the UN, even as its formal position within the UN system has not changed. (Except in very specific cases, Hong Kong does not have official, independent status within the UN network, and it regularly participates under the umbrella of the PRC.) As Beijing tightens its control over Hong Kong, official delegates from the HKSAR have not only begun speaking out more at the UN, but are doing so in a manner that takes inspiration from PRC playbook.

Where once HKSAR delegates to the UN sat silently through meetings and offered only brief replies to direct questions, they now serve as proactive cheerleaders for Beijing. The tone and substance of their contributions largely echo those of the PRC, effectively endorsing the PRC’s values, language, and behavior. However, Hong Kong’s ability to play the role of PRC booster is finite; under the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong will become a “normal” Chinese city by 2047 at the latest. In the meantime, it seems Hong Kong and Beijing are taking advantage of an arrangement that allows them two voices with which to decry the international human rights law framework and global norms.

As recently as 2018, HKSAR representatives at the UN still comported themselves in a restrained manner. That year, at a review conducted by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, the HKSAR’s lead delegate made a factual, polite, and brief opening statement. Several civil society organizations criticized the HKSAR’s evasion of questions during the review in May; HKSAR delegates could be more direct and helpful in their responses to UN experts’ questions but, in my experience, their response is well within the limits of normal behavior at the UN.

By 2022, Hong Kong delegates had progressed from evasion to open combativeness. In July of that year, the UN Human Rights Committee reviewed the HKSAR for its compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (As only the HKSAR, and not the PRC, is a signatory to this covenant, this was one of the rare occasions on which the HKSAR was not part of a larger PRC delegation.) After the review, the Human Rights Committee expressed concern about the National Security Law, which it deemed “overly broad,” recommending its repeal and a stay of application in the meantime. In response, the HKSAR Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau—a liaison office in Hong Kong that represents the PRC—issued a press release. It stated that the government “strongly objects” to the Human Rights Committee’s conclusions, which it called “unsubstantiated criticisms.” Notably, the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau published this press release not on its own homepage but on the main HKSAR government website, implicitly speaking for all of the HKSAR.

HKSAR officials further sharpened their language in February of this year, when the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights found that the Hong Kong National Security Law had “de facto abolished the independence of the judiciary” and raised concerns about the NSL’s impact on the right to fair trial, trade union rights, academic freedom, and artistic freedom. The HKSAR responded that the Committee “made sweeping statements based on certain false information and distorted narratives regardless of the truth, and made one-sided and flawed comments on the human rights situation in Hong Kong in the so-called concluding observations, and even politicized its work in considering the report.”

By the time I was headed to Geneva for the May review of China’s implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, the HKSAR had begun lobbing preemptive criticism. Taking aim at the information civil society representatives submitted to the UN in advance of the review, the HKSAR published multiple press releases lambasting those submissions as “untruthful biased commentary regarding the implementation of the Hong Kong National Security Law” and claiming that “Many of the statements in these submissions are based on false information and distorted narratives regardless of the truth, with flawed comments on the human rights situation in Hong Kong.” In general, states do not criticize NGO submissions made in this informal capacity. Beijing, however, often does so—and, apparently, the HKSAR now does too.

At the review session, mainland China delegates took photos of NGO representatives, during both the session and meal breaks; filed harassment complaints against the NGOs, which forced UN security to investigate; and sent a note verbale to UN Experts claiming the participating NGOs were lying.

After the Hong Kong delegate’s opening statement singling out and criticizing civil society participants, UN Experts asked targeted questions of the 51-member PRC delegation, trying to get a better handle on China’s policies towards women. After each set of questions, the PRC delegates whispered among themselves, flicking through their thick binders and typing furiously on their smartphones. Junior delegates looked inquiringly to more senior people at the table, waiting for nods of approval before providing the Experts with answers that were unhelpful, dismissive, or almost totally irrelevant. For example, when asked about the allegations of forced sterilizations of Uyghur women, the delegates responded with statistics on fertility rates in different regions, across different periods and ethnic groups, but did not address the human rights violations at the root of the question.

Among those offering answers were delegates from Hong Kong. When asked why the Hong Kong Police Force canceled the Hong Kong International Women’s Day March, one of the Hong Kong delegates said the march organizers had decided to cancel the event of their own accord, and that the Police had simply respected this decision. That account, however, contradicts the claims of some would-be marchers that National Security Police warned them not to participate in the march. Moreover, the march was canceled just one day before it was to have occurred, suggesting there was pressure on organizers.

The delegate’s response shocked me. Not only was he openly lying to UN Experts, but his statements suggested the HKSAR no longer felt it needed to maintain the facade of a consistent narrative.

Hong Kong delegates now display this “wolf warrior” attitude no matter which arm of the HKSAR bureaucracy participates in the UN sessions. At UN reviews in July 2022 and February 2023, Hong Kong was represented by an official from the Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Bureau—that part of the HKSAR government most closely tied to Beijing, and the most likely to toe the PRC’s official line. In May 2023, however, the Hong Kong section of the delegation was headed by the Permanent Secretary for Home and Youth Affairs, a member of the Hong Kong civil service with no direct link to the mainland. Not only did she espouse a typical PRC position, she demonstrated an even more aggressive, pro-Beijing, and anti-civil society attitude than delegates at previous reviews.

The HKSAR is also following in the PRC’s footsteps by obstructing or drowning out genuine civil society participation at the UN. The HKSAR has established new “government-organized NGOs” (GONGOs), getting them accredited at the UN so they can make “independent” submissions to UN bodies—submissions which tend to endorse the HKSAR’s and PRC’s human rights record. Because the PRC can veto NGO applications, organizations like Hong Kong Watch will likely never receive such accreditation. (We must reapply for access to the UN building before each event, and we receive more limited permissions than accredited institutions.) Furthermore, as Hong Kong civil society continues to erode under the National Security Law, the space to serve as watchdogs is left to NGOs based abroad, which simultaneously face condemnation from the Hong Kong government for being located outside the country.

In just a few years, HKSAR representatives at the UN have morphed from restrained professionals to wolf warrior-style delegates. They actively promote the PRC’s agenda and copy its tactics, employing manipulative language with regard to human rights and attacking anyone who challenges their narrative, be they NGOs or UN human rights experts. As the HKSAR begins to speak up at the UN, it does so in language that echoes Beijing’s—such as by attacking NGOs who submitted information to the Women’s Rights Review and accusing them of providing “false information and distorted narratives regardless of the truth”—and seeks to discredit UN findings without substantively addressing any of the points they raise. Like the PRC central government, the HKSAR is presenting an alternative vision of human rights that actually enables rights violations. We should expect the HKSAR to further increase its use of these tactics at the January 2024 UN Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic Review, in which the UN will examine the PRC’s human rights record between 2018 and 2024—including Hong Kong’s.

The open question for me is whether delegates from the HKSAR will begin to display some of the most aggressive behavior that we already see from mainland delegates.