Beijing Launches a Global Assault on Free Speech

Hong Kong’s cruel new law doesn’t just affect the city.

Riot police in a mall in Hong Kong
Riot police hold up a warning flag during a demonstration in a mall in Hong Kong on July 6. Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images

The national security law imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing’s rubber-stamp, robotic National People’s Congress is the worst, most dangerous, and most overreaching law I have seen in over 25 years of human rights work. It is an all-out assault on freedom—not just in Hong Kong, but worldwide.

Fast-tracked by Beijing over the course of a month, it shatters the promise that was made to Hong Kong at the handover almost exactly 23 years ago of a “high degree of autonomy” and—in the words of the last British governor of the city, Chris Patten—that “ Hong Kong people are to run Hong Kong..”

Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, known as the Basic Law, does require a national security law to be introduced at some stage. But it explicitly requires Hong Kong to do so “on its own.” Imposing a law from Beijing without even the pretense of a process in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council makes a total mockery of “one country, two systems.” Moreover, media reports suggest that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam—a puppet of Beijing—did not even know that the law had been passed until she heard it from reporters and was in the dark about the content of the legislation until she signed it.

The law criminalizes four acts: subversion, secession, collusion with foreign entities, and terrorism.

In a free society, few people would argue with—and most would support—proportionate counterterrorism measures. I have missed a bombing by five minutes in Islamabad, and at least two of my friends have been assassinated, so I need no lessons in the importance of countering extremism.

But this law is not about terrorism. Under the new rules imposed on Hong Kong, a person who requests help from a foreign country, institution, organization, or individual is guilty of an offense. So Hong Kongers who until this week messaged me daily, shared ideas and information with me, took part in webinars with members of the British Parliament at my invitation, or gave interviews to foreign journalists are now committing a criminal act. Hong Kong pro-democracy activists who have testified at hearings in parliaments around the world can no longer do so legally.

Calling for sanctions is now a crime. Criticizing the Chinese Communist Party—deemed to be “provoking hatred” against the central government—is illegal. Even talking about independence is a crime. Even if you don’t commit violent actions or rise up in revolution, merely expressing an opinion can result in a jail sentence for life.

And then there’s the most absurd part of this law: its apparent extraterritorial application. This law threatens us all. We are all Hong Kongers now—not just in spirit, but in reality.

According to Article 38 of the law, anyone, anywhere in the world, could be accused under this new set of rules. A non-Hong Kong resident living outside Hong Kong—indeed, theoretically, someone who has never been to Hong Kong or China—could be committing a supposed crime.

On one level this is comical. This week I have spent every day giving interviews to international media from my home in London about this law. In theory, I have committed many offenses. In practice, I was already denied entry to Hong Kong in 2017 on Beijing’s orders and been subjected to a campaign of postal and email harassment by the regime’s agents—as was my mother—and so for me it’s water off a duck’s back.

But on another level it is more sinister. The Chinese regime kidnapped Gui Minhai, a Swedish national, from Thailand in 2015 and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. Countries should start reviewing their extradition agreements with Hong Kong, as Canada and Australia have already done.

If Hong Kong had a government elected by the people, accountable to the people, with safeguards for fundamental rights and freedoms, a security law would cause less controversy. But the promise to give Hong Kongers universal suffrage—another vow made in the Basic Law—now seems a distant dream.

What is “special” about the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region any longer? Not the system of governance, that’s for sure. It’s the people, who bravely turned out the day the law was enacted to protest, as they have done so many times over recent years. And at least 370 of them were arrested, though only 10 specifically under the new law.

The new law is, as British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab has said, a “serious” violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international treaty lodged at the United Nations and valid until 2047. The Chinese regime has not just destroyed Hong Kongers’ liberties, it has launched an outright attack on the international rules-based order.

The response has to be to stand up and fight. The beginnings of the pushback have begun in London and Washington, D.C., in the form of targeted sanctions and a generous offer of help to Hong Kongers who wish to flee, but so much more is needed.

Britain must lead the world in coordinating the response. That’s why an international contact group—as proposed in a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson by seven former British foreign secretaries—is so urgent.

That international contact group should coordinate a three-pronged approach:

A punitive response, with coordinated, targeted sanctions.

A political and diplomatic response, by moving ahead with recommendations already made by current and former United Nations officials for the establishment of a U.N. special envoy or rapporteur, or both.

And a humanitarian response—by agreeing among allies a lifeboat rescue package so that Hong Kongers who need to flee can find a place of sanctuary. That should only ever be a last resort. Our objective should not be for Hong Kongers to leave their hometown, it should be to make it safe and free for them to stay, but the reality is democratic governments need to plan for the worst-case scenario—and be ready to welcome the people of Hong Kong.

And let us not think this security law is the end of the matter. If we fail to act, Taiwan will be next. And after Taiwan, the rights of people of Chinese descent in the rest of the world, whom Beijing has repeatedly showed it treats as its own subjects, will be next to be targeted—whether they are Americans, British, Canadians, or Malaysians. And beyond that, they will move on to anyone, or any institution, that speaks out against the Communist Party.

Hong Kong is today’s front line for freedom—and while the hour is late and dark, it is not too late to stand up for what it represents.

Benedict Rogers is the co-founder and CEO of Hong Kong Watch, a senior analyst for East Asia at the international human rights organization CSW, and the co-founder and deputy chair of the U.K. Conservative Party Human Rights Commission.

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