Hong Kong activists passport cancellation underscores slide into authoritarianism

Hong Kong’s status as a repressive regime is becoming more of a reality and transnational repression a norm.
A commentary by Megan Khoo
2024.06.12
Hong Kong activists passport cancellation underscores slide into authoritarianism
Illustration by Amanda Weisbrod/RFA; Images by Wikimedia Commons, Adobe Stock

Today I woke up in London to news that was inevitable under Hong Kong’s new Safeguarding National Security Ordinance, or ‘“Article 23” – Hong Kong authorities have canceled the passports of six pro-democracy activists who live in exile in the UK. 

Although predictable, this blatant act of transnational repression further demonstrates the deteriorating state of the rule of law in Hong Kong, which increasingly mirrors China and other authoritarian regimes.

Under Article 23, the Hong Kong Secretary for Security can consider an individual to be an “absconder” if they have an arrest warrant for six months and fail to appear before a magistrate, and if the secretary “reasonably believes” they are not in Hong Kong. Once an individual is declared to be an absconder, the security secretary can act accordingly, including by canceling the passports of alleged absconders. 

A pedestrian in Hong Kong looks at police reward notices for eight pro-democracy activists living in the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia, July 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Louise Delmotte)
A pedestrian in Hong Kong looks at police reward notices for eight pro-democracy activists living in the United States, Britain, Canada and Australia, July 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Louise Delmotte)

In this case, which includes the first application of this specific provision in Article 23, the authorities have targeted Finn Lau, Simon Cheng, Christopher Mung, Nathan Law, Johnny Fok and Tony Choi. All were issued arrest warrants with US$128,035 bounties in July and December last year. 

The authorities stated that they will strip these individuals of not only their passports but all business dealings in Hong Kong, including making it illegal for others to enter into a joint business venture with or to provide these individuals with funds.

The Hong Kong government issued a press release stating: “These lawless wanted criminals are hiding in the United Kingdom and continue to blatantly engage in activities that endanger national security. They also make scaremongering remarks to smear and slander the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. More so, they continue to collude with external forces to protect their evil deeds. We therefore have taken such measures to give them a strong blow.” 

Identity can’t be canceled

This statement is totally off the mark, given that the alleged criminals are doing the opposite of hiding and what would generally be considered criminal, as they continue to advocate for freedoms which are guaranteed under international law in the UK. 

In Britain, they have founded non-profit organizations related to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, engaged with local communities, and become beacons of hope for those who have faced persecution in Hong Kong. 

In response to the canceling of his passport, Simon Cheng said, “The charges levied against us are unfounded and politically motivated, aimed at silencing dissent and curbing our efforts to advocate for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. Our activities in the United Kingdom are centred on raising international awareness about the erosion of freedoms and the rule of law in Hong Kong, not on endangering national security.”

Christopher Mung said, “The regime can cancel my passport, but it can never cancel my identity as a HongKonger. I will continue to fight for my beloved Hong Kong, which belongs to the people, not the dictatorship.”

Hong Kong activist Simon Cheng speaks at a protest against Hong Kong's new national security law, Article 23, in London, March 23, 2024. (Kin Cheung/AP)
Hong Kong activist Simon Cheng speaks at a protest against Hong Kong's new national security law, Article 23, in London, March 23, 2024. (Kin Cheung/AP)

Notably, Finn Lau, who has never owned a Hong Kong passport, dismissed the regime’s line of attack, noting the passport cancellation violated treaties pertaining to the former British colony.. 

Such a deployment of Hong Kong Article 23 ordinance is an explicit act of transnational repression and  another breach of the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” said Lau.  “I have to pinpoint that I hold a BNO (British National Overseas) passport only, and never apply for or own a Hong Kong SAR passport. It is ridiculous to cancel something that never exists.” 

It is also important to note that the “external forces” these individuals have engaged with include the non-profit organization I work for in the UK, Hong Kong Watch, as well as UK government officials. 

More and more like China

This move by the Hong Kong authorities is similar to moves that have been made by Communist China. 

For instance, China did not hold back from retaliating against the UK for launching the BNO passport – declaring in Jan. 2021 that it would not recognize the BNO passport for Hong Kong residents. 

This declaration has led to tens of thousands of exiled Hong Kongers being denied access to up to US$3.8 billion worth of their Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) retirement savings as their passport is not considered valid – piling transnational repression on top of transnational repression.

The letters “MPF” appear on the exterior of Hong Kong Bank on Nov. 28, 2000 as a reminder of the approaching deadline for Hong Kong's pension scheme, the Mandatory Provident Fund. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP)
The letters “MPF” appear on the exterior of Hong Kong Bank on Nov. 28, 2000 as a reminder of the approaching deadline for Hong Kong's pension scheme, the Mandatory Provident Fund. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP)

Beyond China and now Hong Kong, other authoritarian regimes cancel the passports of those who have fled from their twisted reign abroad. For example, Belarus President Alexander Lukashenka declared in 2023 that Belarus would not renew passports in overseas embassies to intentionally target those who fled Belarus after Lukashenko declared himself president for a sixth term in the fraudulent 2020 election. 

Unfortunately, Belarus’ malicious environment where human rights and the rule of law are disregarded sounds similar to the evolving rights landscape in Hong Kong. With the cancellation of the passports of six activists, Hong Kong’s status as an authoritarian regime is only becoming more of a reality and transnational repression a norm. 

Do businesses really want to continue to invest and expand into Hong Kong? Business is not as usual, and academics, advocates and journalists continue to scream this from the rooftops with minimal response. 

The long arm of authorities

If companies are wary of doing business in China due to regulatory and transparency issues, they should also think twice before remaining in or courting Hong Kong, where exiled pro-democracy activists face the arbitrary cancellation of their passports nearly 6,000 miles away.

Governments should also think critically and carefully about how they engage with such a government while protecting those who have sought safe haven within their borders. This is particularly important in the UK, where in the middle of a general election, every political party that exists thanks to democracy should condemn Hong Kong’s actions to demonstrate that they are serious about tackling transnational repression.

Demonstrators hold yellow umbrellas, the symbol of the Occupy Central movement, and placards during a protest against the proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong, June 9, 2019. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)
Demonstrators hold yellow umbrellas, the symbol of the Occupy Central movement, and placards during a protest against the proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong, June 9, 2019. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Finally, it is not lost on close observers that  the passport cancellation took place on the fifth anniversary of a turning point in the 2019 anti-extradition protests in Hong Kong: the “6.12”  Incident.” June 12, 2019 marked the first time the Hong Kong Police Force used rubber bullets and tear gas against peaceful pro-democracy protesters. 

Five years later, we are seeing yet another form of attack on peaceful pro-democracy protesters who are simply exercising their rights under international law in the UK, which is well outside the jurisdiction of Hong Kong. 

The Hong Kong community in the UK, and the diaspora around the world, must know they are safe from the long arm of the Hong Kong authorities in every corner of the world. From Hong Kong to London, democracy cannot and must not be silenced.

Megan Khoo is a research and policy advisor at the international NGO Hong Kong Watch. Khoo, based in London, has served in communications roles at foreign policy non-profit organizations in London and Washington, D.C.. The views expressed here do not reflect the position of  Radio Free Asia.

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