The former head of Hong Kong's colonial-era civil service, Anson Chan, has warned U.S. lawmakers and judges that the city’s government is being drawn into political censorship at the behest of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, which promised the maintenance of its existing freedoms for 50 years.
Chan, who was awarded the 2018 O’Connor Justice Prize for her contributions to advancing rule of law, justice, and human rights during her trip, founded a pro-democracy think-tank to advance the cause of fully democratic elections for Hong Kong during the city’s student-led 2014 Occupy Central movement.
In her acceptance speech for the award, Chan said Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, specifies that China’s socialist system “will not be practiced” in Hong Kong, and that the city’s existing way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years after the 1997 handover to China.
But she said there are already worrying signs that Beijing may be seeking to impose more direct rule on the city with a series of high-profile interventions in the city’s political life, including the debarring of “localist” and pro-independence lawmakers and election candidates and the jailing of the leaders of the 2014 Occupy Central movement.
“The rule of law is sacrosanct because, if it is lost, all the other rights and freedoms that it underpins are threatened,” Chan said.
She cited freedoms of speech, press, and publication, freedom of the person, and protection from arbitrary arrest, detention, or imprisonment, freedom of association and assembly, freedom of conscience and religious belief, of academic teaching and research, and the right to legal representation as being potentially under threat in the city if the rule of law isn’t defended.
“These rights and freedoms and more—none of which are practiced in Mainland China—are spelled out clearly in the Basic Law,” Chan said.
Call to defend freedoms
She called on ordinary Hong Kong people and the city’s supporters overseas to defend its freedoms.
“While the rule of law is still intact in terms of Hong Kong’s judicial system, and is being vigorously defended by the local legal profession, there is worrying evidence that, under pressure from Beijing, the SAR Government is increasingly ruling by law, to suppress dissent and intimidate pro-democracy protesters,” Chan said.
“Worse still, is an increasing tendency to enact new laws in circumstances where existing laws do not appear to provide adequate scope for control of opinions or actions that the authorities do not like,” she said.
She cited a requirement introduced in 2016 that would require candidates for election to declare their understanding that Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China.
“Even more disturbing has been an increasing use [of] the mainland’s de facto but essentially rubber stamp legislature ... to interpret specific provisions in the Basic Law,” Chan said.
She said the National People’s Congress standing committee’s intervention was “particularly unwarranted” in the removal of six members of the city’s Legislative Council over oaths of allegiance that Beijing said were insufficiently “solemn and sincere.”
“The intervention … served to pre-empt the jurisdiction of the local courts and gravely undermine perceptions of the independence of the judicial process,” Chan said.
She said the Hong Kong government had “added salt to the wounds” by refusing to validate a candidate from a political party that promotes self-determination, but stops short of advocating independence.
“This decision looks very much like naked political screening of a pro-democracy candidate; it flies in the face not only of a number of Articles of the Basic Law, but also Article 1 of the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance which provides, among other things, that the right to stand for election shall be enjoyed without distinction of any kind, such as political or other opinion,” Chan said.
She called on the people of Hong Kong to push back against “an increasingly forceful and authoritarian leadership in Beijing.”
“Ordinary people must be prepared to stand up and be counted in defense of the independence of the courts,” she said, accusing the administration of President Xi Jinping of “chipping away at Hong Kong’s autonomy and interfering more and more in the routine policy-making and administration of the city.”
“It has become clear that Beijing is now bent on moulding Hong Kong’s governance to become more closely aligned with that of the mainland,” Chan warned, saying that Xi’s emergence as a paramount leader akin to Mao was having major implications for Hong Kong.
Meets U.S. lawmakers
Last week, Chan visited Capitol Hill, meeting with Democrat House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Republican Ed Royce, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“Our aim in coming here is mainly to talk about recent developments in Hong Kong, in particular the strong concern in the U.S. for Hong Kong’s democracy,” Chan told RFA.
“Also, a number of measures taken recently by the [Hong Kong] government, for example, the disqualification of a number of Legislative Council members,” she said. “Also about the fact that it has been drawn into political censorship recently, with the refusal to allow Demosisto candidate Agnes Chow to take part in the March by-election.”
The Hong Kong government said Chan’s comments were unhelpful.
“Statements arbitrarily made to undermine the rule of law and our well-recognized reputation in this regard is not conducive to Hong Kong's progress,” it said in a statement.
“Advocating "independence" ... or "democratic self-determination" … are inconsistent with the constitutional and legal status of [Hong Kong], as well as the established basic policies of the People’s Republic of China regarding Hong Kong,” it said.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap and Fok Leung-kiu for RFA’s Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.