Hong Kong’s freedoms have been extinguished in the last two years according to a March 31 report by the British government.
Since Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 the British government has released two reports a year about Hong Kong and its progress under the Sino-British Joint Declaration. In its latest semiannual report, the British government said Hong Kong's Beijing-imposed national security law has continued to undermine the rights of Hong Kong residents.
Experts who spoke to VOA both welcomed the report and accused Britain of tarnishing Hong Kong’s rule of law.
The report points to some of the changes to Hong Kong’s framework and structural way of life. It highlights major Hong Kong political developments between July and December of last year, including the first person to be tried under charges from the national security law, the first “patriots-only” set of elections and the closure of civil society unions and independent media outlets.
Political analyst Joseph Cheng, formerly of Hong Kong, but now living in New Zealand, told VOA that the report represents Britain’s commitment to Hong Kong.
“Two or three years before the [pro-democracy] Umbrella Movement [in 2014], the British diplomats in London and Hong Kong were tempted to terminate the series of six-monthly reports on Hong Kong. Today all those concerned with the situation in the territory are grateful for this series of reports as an authoritative and informative source on Hong Kong.
“This represents a commitment which may sometimes be neglected by ordinary people. But the willingness to accept hundreds of thousands of BNO [British National Overseas] passport holders from Hong Kong in the recent two years or so and in the foreseeable future has been most appreciated by Hong Kong people who plan to emigrate,” he added.
Benedict Rogers, co-founder of Britain-based Hong Kong Watch — who was recently warned he would face imprisonment if he ever returned to Hong Kong — welcomed the latest report.
“We welcome the report which is much more robust, detailed and unambiguous than previous reports. It describes the dramatic deterioration in the situation in Hong Kong, which looks set only to intensify further,” he told VOA.
US report sent to Congress
The U.S. Department of State submitted its Hong Kong Policy Act Report to Congress on Thursday, covering conditions in Hong Kong from March 2021 through last month.
The report, the U.S. Consulate General for Hong Kong and Macao said, found that China “took new actions to erode rights and freedoms in Hong Kong, in direct contravention of its obligations under the Hong Kong Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy.”
As a consequence, the State Department determined that “Hong Kong does not warrant treatment under U.S. law in the same manner as U.S. laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1, 1997.”
The report said Beijing took new actions directly threatening U.S. interests in Hong Kong under the National security law. The report also highlights how both Chinese and Hong Kong authorities have targeted civil society groups, media companies, and labor unions associated with the territory’s pro‑democracy movement.
Hong Kong, Beijing government response
Both reports have since angered the Hong Kong government, which said in an April 1 statement that the reports constitute “interfering in internal affairs.”
"We strongly oppose the unfounded and ridiculous allegations against the HKSAR [Hong Kong Special Administrative Region] Government made by foreign countries through various reports.
“The HKSAR Government urges foreign countries to stop interfering into the internal affairs of China through Hong Kong affairs,” part of the response stated.
Beijing told Britain to “abandon” its colonial mindset in response to the report.
The British report said support for Hong Kong should not be constituted as “foreign interference.”
“As a co-signatory of the Joint Declaration, we have a duty to speak out when we have concerns, and will continue to do so. It is regrettable that the mainland Chinese and Hong Kong authorities suggest our actions constitute 'foreign interference.' The U.K.'s response to the situation in Hong Kong is consistent with normal diplomatic practice,” it said.
Pro-Beijing Hong Kong lawmaker Holden Chow told VOA he believes the British report contains many falsehoods.
“Again the British report expressed falsehoods against Hong Kong SAR, smeared our national security law. Furthermore, to my dismay, the two U.K. judges resigned their positions as non-permanent judges of Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal, for the purpose of discrediting our judicial system. They simply compromised their integrity and judicial independence by accommodating the unscrupulous actions to suppress China taken by [the] U.K. government,” Chow told VOA in a WhatsApp message.
“Indeed I don't any see alleged changes, namely the removal of rights and freedom as accused by western pundits. In fact, since the enactment of [the] National Security Law (NSL), it has restored stability and safe environment for Hong Kong, as opposed to the chaos and deeply divided status before enactment of the NSL. Our rights and freedom are robustly guaranteed by our Basic Law,” he added.
Chow is referring to two British judges who tendered their resignations last week in Hong Kong’s high court because of the effects the national security law has had.
Robert Reed and Patrick Hodge stated that the Hong Kong administration had departed with political freedom and expression since the enactment of the law. British judges have long served among the foreign jurists appointed to Hong Kong’s highest court in an arrangement to maintain confidence in the city’s legal apparatus.
Under the "One country, two systems" signed agreement, Beijing promised that Hong Kong would retain a high degree of autonomy until 2047.
But following Hong Kong’s 2019’s pro-democracy protests, Beijing implemented the national security law to bring back stability to the city. Among other things, it prohibits secession, subversion, and collusion with foreign forces.
The law has seen authorities enforce a political crackdown with dozens of civil society groups closing and several independent media outlets also shutting their doors. At least 150 dissidents have also been arrested, including dozens of democratic lawmakers and political figures. Some dissidents have been tried in court without a jury and presided over by enlisted national security judges.
Britain has stated it believes China is no longer in compliance with the agreement since the security legislation took hold.