Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of China, maintains separate governing and economic systems from that of mainland China under the principle of “one country, two systems”. 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 legislative changes that would enable criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. However, the bill faced widespread criticism from many sectors of society concerned that it would undermine Hong Kong’s legal freedoms and might be used to intimidate or silence dissidents.
Beginning in March, the people of Hong Kong repeatedly protested the proposed extradition bill. Over a million people flooded the main streets on June 9, June 16 and August 18. Countless protests of smaller scale took place in other parts of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong police used water cannons, tear gas and pepper spray, and, in some instances, guns firing bean bags, rubber bullets and live rounds to disperse the largely peaceful demonstrations.
On June 15, the Hong Kong government announced it would indefinitely suspend the bill. Then, on September 3, 2019, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the controversial extradition bill would be formally withdrawn. But the protesters demands have broadened to demand the authorities conduct an independent investigation into the police use of force, withdraw the “riot” label for the anti-extradition bill protests, release any arrested anti-extradition bill protesters, and not pursue any charges against them, as well as universal suffrage for all Legislative Council members and the Chief Executive. The protests further intensified in response to police inaction as violent counter-protesters attacked by-standers and protesters in the Yuen Long area of Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong police have used violent acts by a small group as a pretext to classify the largely peaceful protests as unlawful assemblies and, specifically, “riots”. Amnesty 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. By early August, police said they have fired 1,800 rounds of tear gas, 300 rubber bullets and 170 sponge grenades. As of December 16, more than 6000 people have been arrested, while 517 people have been charged with “rioting”, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 10 years.
On October 5, the Hong Kong government invoked a colonial-era law, the Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO), to bypass the legislative bodies and enact the Prohibition of Face Covering Regulation (also known as the “Mask Ban”). The ban has far-reaching repercussions for the human rights to privacy, health and protection against discrimination. On Dec 10, the Hong Kong Court ruled the Mask Ban unconstitutional. The court is now pending an appeal case from the Hong Kong government.
In recent years, China’s government has drafted and enacted a series of restrictive laws in the name of national security that present grave dangers to human rights and human rights defenders. Human rights defenders, including lawyers and activists, are increasingly subjected to monitoring, harassment, intimidation, detention and imprisonment. In Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (Xinjiang), an estimated one million predominantly Muslim people have been held in internment. Detainees have been subjected to political and cultural indoctrination, children have been separated from their parents, and there have been numerous allegations of torture and other ill-treatment in these camps.
On a broader scale, an increasingly assertive China has worrying implications for the human rights system as a whole. China’s leaders are operating from within the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council to shrink the space available for the UN and civil society to hold states accountable for their human rights records, as well as making efforts to reframe human rights as a “cause,” as opposed to a state’s legal obligations to its people. As China has become more powerful, it has been able to shut down human rights dialogues and intimidate those that criticize its record. In 2013, Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), steering much of this finance into infrastructure projects. Many of the projects that make up BRI are based in countries where there is much potential for exploitative labor practices, environmental degradation, and weak governance and accountability.
In July 2015, an unprecedented government crackdown on human rights lawyers and other activists began during which nearly 250 targeted individuals were questioned or detained by state security agents. Many other lawyers have been disbarred and thus are no longer able to use their legal expertise to seek justice for victims of human rights abuses. The effects of this crackdown are being felt throughout Chinese society.
The internment of predominantly Muslim ethnic groups in Xinjiang has intensified since March 2017, when a “Regulation on De-extremification” was adopted in the region. Open or even private displays of religious and cultural affiliation, including growing an “abnormal” beard, wearing a veil or headscarf, regular prayer can be considered “extremist” under the regulation. Since then there has been a growing government campaign of mass internment, intrusive surveillance, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation against Uyghurs, Kazakhs and others in Xinjiang. It is estimated that up to one million people have been held in internment camps.
While the formal withdrawal of the extradition bill is welcome, the withdrawal cannot change the fact that the Hong Kong authorities have chosen to suppress protests in a grossly unlawful way that has seriously damaged the people’s trust and sense of legitimacy of the government.
- The United States has an obligation to stand with the people of Hong Kong in their yearning for freedom and a government that respects international human rights.
- As President, I will ensure that Hong Kong remains a priority in our dialogues with China and call on them to fully conduct an independent investigation into unnecessary or excessive use of force, de-escalate the situation, and respect the rights of protestors.
- The United States should, with allies and partners, use diplomatic and economic tools to urge the Chinese government and Hong Kong authorities to allow an independent investigation into unnecessary or excessive use of force by police at protests and to withdraw the present mask ban and bring the ERO in line with Article 4 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
- The Executive Branch should fully implement the Hong Kong PROTECT Act, which prohibits the issuance of licenses to export covered munition items such as tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and other items to the Hong Kong Police Force.
- The United States should support the human rights of the people of Hong Kong in its bilateral and multilateral dialogues with China both publicly and privately.
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National Director, Advocacy and Government Affairs