(New York) – Hong Kong authorities should immediately release 10 pro-democracy figures arrested on August 10 for vague “national security” crimes and drop all charges against them, Human Rights Watch said today. Governments should support the call by 50 United Nations human rights experts to hold a special session on China at the UN Human Rights Council and establish a new monitoring mechanism for China.
“The arrests of democracy supporters and activists are an attempt to dismantle Hong Kong’s civil society, including independent media like Apple Daily,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Under Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has long shown itself afraid of public opinion on the mainland, and is using the new national security law to try to smash Hong Kong’s independent voices and settle scores with longtime critics.”
On August 10, Beijing authorities also placed unspecified sanctions on Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, and 10 other US citizens for “having behaved badly in matters related to Hong Kong.” This follows Hong Kong Immigration authorities’ decision in January to bar Roth from entering Hong Kong to launch the organization’s annual World Report with a lead essay highlighting Beijing’s deepening assault on international efforts to uphold human rights.
On August 10, more than 200 Hong Kong police officers raided the headquarters of Apple Daily, a major pro-democracy newspaper, and arrested its owner, Jimmy Lai, for “colluding with foreign elements,” “incitement,” and “conspiracy to defraud.” Police also arrested Lai’s two sons and four top executives of the Next Media group, the parent company of Apple Daily. One executive, Royston Chow Tat-kuen, was arrested for “colluding with foreign elements” and “conspiracy to defraud,” while the other executives and Lai’s sons were each arrested for one of these alleged crimes. A fifth executive, Mark Simon, who lives abroad, is also wanted by Hong Kong police, Apply Daily said.
The Hong Kong police also arrested a prominent pro-democracy politician, Agnes Chow, as well as activists Wilson Li and Andy Li for “colluding with foreign elements.” The Lis were also arrested for “money laundering,” reportedly due to their connection with the group Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong (攬炒團隊).
A Hong Kong police spokesperson said the crime of “colluding with foreign elements” refers to Chow and the Lis’ roles in operating a group that “calls on others to sanction Hong Kong.” They also accused Lai and the Next Media executives of funding the group “using foreign bank accounts.”
The arrests and sanctions may be a form of retaliation for the August 7 announcement by the United States that it would place 11 top Chinese and Hong Kong government officials, including chief executive Carrie Lam and the chief of police, on a sanctions list for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.
The terms used in the new national security law are overly broad and vague, Human Rights Watch said. The crime of collusion with “foreign elements,” which carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, makes it a criminal offense to call for sanctions or engage in “hostile activities” against the Hong Kong or Chinese governments. The wording is broad enough to include many forms of peaceful activism and exercise of fundamental rights, such as petitioning foreign governments to press Hong Kong or China to respect rights guaranteed under Hong Kong or Chinese law.
The attack on Apple Daily may also be motivated by a desire to limit the circulation of an independent Chinese-language media outlet. Media on the mainland has long been subjected to censorship and stringent control. The Chinese government has taken steps to try to censor Chinese language media globally. Apple Daily is one of the few independent Chinese language media outlets that has a broad print and digital circulation globally and does not act as a mouthpiece for the propaganda of the Chinese Communist Party.
On July 31, Human Rights Watch and 16 other civil society organizations issued a public letter calling on 40 governments around the world to act to uphold human rights in Hong Kong. The letter includes recommendations, ranging from imposing targeted sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong government officials, to supporting the call by the United Nations human rights experts.
A number of foreign governments, such as Germany and Japan, have criticized Beijing’s recent moves on Hong Kong, including the imposition of the national security law. Many have suspended extradition treaties with the city. The United Kingdom has offered a pathway to citizenship for many Hong Kong residents. The United States is the only government that has imposed targeted sanctions on senior Chinese and Hong Kong government officials.
“Governments and the United Nations urgently need to work together to reverse the assault on rights and freedoms in Hong Kong,” Adams said. “They need to unite around a collective strategy toward the increasingly abusive Chinese government, which under Xi has rolled back a generation of modest but important rights improvements on the mainland. Hong Kong should not fall victim to the same fate.”