The controversial national security law imposed by China on Hong Kong has brought deep concern among its robust civil society and non-governmental organizations who use the territory as regional hub, prompting some to relocate their staff while others fear over their fate under the new legislation.
After Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the “one country two systems” formula allowed its freewheeling civil society, including many international and domestic NGOs, to continue operating. But the national security law passed on July 1, dubbed the “second handover,” is causing jitters in the non-profit sector.
Many nonprofit groups say they are worried about being implicated by the law, which aims to “prevent, suppress and impose punishment” for secession, subversion, terrorism and “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.”
The authorities have emphasized the need for a sweeping law to stamp out Hong Kong’s yearlong anti-government protests, which have often turned violent. On Monday, Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Cui Tiankai insisted that the law will make Hong Kong’s business environment “more stable and secure.” Chinese officials have said the law was intended to act as a “deterrent” and hang over potential troublemakers “like the sword of Damocles.”
The law appears to have achieved its aim to intimidate.
At least one international NGO has moved all its workers out of Hong Kong while others are planning to shift some of their operations abroad. Some NGO workers have resigned while others have moved abroad or sought to relocate. Those who have decided to stay in Hong Kong, for now, say they must tread a fine line when doing their work to avoid falling afoul of the law, which has broad and vague definitions of security crimes. All of those who spoke to the VOA declined to be identified for fears of retribution from the authorities.
“It’s a really difficult time for many NGOs,” a veteran human rights worker said. “We don’t know how this law will be implemented and to what extent they will use it. Everyone is really nervous.”
NGO workers say clauses in the law, particularly those that criminalize “conspiring” with or receiving instructions, funding or support from foreign countries or organizations, make them particularly vulnerable. Groups that have advocated democratization or have criticized the dictatorial nature of the Chinese Communist Party also run the risk of being found guilty of “altering by unlawful means the legal status” of the regime, or “inciting hatred” towards the Chinese or Hong Kong governments, as stated in the law.
An international NGO worker said Hong Kong used to be a place that was convenient to work on projects in China while keeping in touch with the international community, but these advantages are no longer viable under the new law.
“There are no such freedoms anymore. The authorities’ hostility is very apparent, and they could arrest people any time under this broad and vague law,” she said. “When we’re under these threats and limitations, it is very difficult to work.”
She added that the fate of the two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, detained in China in December 2018 and now charged for espionage, could easily befall on foreign nationals or people working for international NGOs in Hong Kong.
A board member of a small human rights group said most of its staff have resigned and the group must completely restructure its work and move some projects outside Hong Kong.
"Our staff are worried, we really understand," he said, adding that his group will need to give up some of its overseas funding due to the law's restrictions on foreign “collusion.”
"There's so much about this sweeping law which is in the unknown and we can easily be accused of collusion with foreign powers (for our international advocacy)," he said.
Groups that have projects in mainland China have already experienced severe restrictions under its national security law to the extent they can no longer operate there.
The head of a small Hong Kong organization said her group has ceased operation in China for a few years, after the implementation of the national security law in 2015 and the overseas NGO law in 2017. Now she feels the draconian measures and comprehensive government control over society have been extended to Hong Kong.
"The National Security Law is only the first step," she said, stressing that China's all-round suppression of civil society will eventually end many NGOs operating in Hong Kong.
She said her group will try to continue working in Hong Kong for as long as possible, but they will have to work under extremely tight limitations to avoid falling afoul of the law.
"They're implementing this law to intimidate organizations and hope they’d all close down without the authorities having to take actions," she said. "When civil society has shrunken sufficiently, it would be less costly for them to deal with them."
"Their aim is to bring them under control," she said.