Hong Kong immigration authorities on Sunday refused entry to the head of a New York-based rights group ahead of the release of a major human rights report, prompting renewed concerns over deteriorating civil rights and freedoms in the city.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), was turned away by immigration staff at Hong Kong's International Airport, after traveling to the city to launch the group's annual global rights report, HRW said in a statement.
"I had hoped to spotlight Beijing’s deepening assault on international efforts to uphold human rights," Roth said of the report, which is to be released on Wednesday. "The refusal to let me enter Hong Kong vividly illustrates the problem."
In the report, Roth warns that the Chinese government is carrying out an intensive attack on the global system for enforcing human rights.
"My denial of entry pales in comparison to the harassment that Chinese activists routinely endure - jail, torture, and enforced disappearance simply for trying to secure basic rights for their fellow citizens," Roth, who has traveled to Hong Kong many times before, including to launch a HRW report, said in a statement on HRW's website.
"This disappointing action is yet another sign that Beijing is tightening its oppressive grip on Hong Kong and further restricting the limited freedom Hong Kong people enjoy,” he said, calling on the international community to "take a firm stand against China's creeping repression" that had been the target of the Hong Kong protest movement for months.
The move came after China's foreign ministry said on Dec. 2 that it would impose sanctions on HRW and other U.S.-based pro-democracy groups.
Roth isn't the first visitor to be denied access to Hong Kong for political reasons.
U.S.-based rights activist and veteran of the 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement Feng Congde was refused entry in June 2019, as was Benedict Rogers, who founded the U.K.-based group Hong Kong Watch, in October 2017.
Not in line with 'one country, two systems'
The Financial Times' Asia news editor Victor Mallet was also turned away at the airport in November 2018 after the authorities refused to renew his work visa because he hosted a lunchtime talk at Hong Kong's Foreign Correspondents' Club featuring a pro-independence speaker.
"These things should not have happened," Man-Kei Tam, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, told RFA on Monday.
Tam said the barring of entry for political reasons was out of keeping with Beijing's promises that Hong Kong could maintain its existing freedoms under the "one country, two systems" framework agreed before the 1997 handover of the former British colony to Chinese rule.
"The international community should continue to keep a close eye on what is going on in Hong Kong, and continue to support the people of Hong Kong in their right to freedom of express and peaceful assembly," Tam said.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said HRW was regarded as hostile because of its support for the Hong Kong protest movement.
"Whether someone is allowed in or not is a matter of China's sovereignty," Geng told a regular news briefing on Monday. "There was a large amount of facts and evidence to show that the non government organization in question had used various means to support those who would wreak havoc in Hong Kong."
"They aggressively incited [the protesters] to become involved in violent crime, separatist activities and activities in support of Hong Kong independence," Geng said. "Such organizations deserve to be sanctioned and should pay the price accordingly."
His comments came after Hong Kong pro-democracy group Demosisto said its members had voted to remove reference to "self-determination" as a political goal for Hong Kong, changing it to "promoting Hong Kong's democratic and progressive values."
Beijing sees rioters, foreign interference
Demosisto's leader and former 2014 student protest leader Joshua Wong was disqualified in November for standing in District Council elections on the grounds that a referendum on the city's future was part of Demosisto's core political aims.
Demosisto member Agnes Chow was also disqualified from running in a by-election for the Legislative Council in 2018 for similar reasons.
China's official narrative since anti-extradition protests broadened into wider calls for more democracy and accountability have been to label the protests a pro-independence movement instigated by hostile foreign forces infiltrating Hong Kong.
On Jan. 8, Hong Kong security chief John Lee claimed that protesters in the city had been "receiving training from overseas groups," but gave no evidence of any training.
The Hong Kong government habitually refers to frontline protesters as "rioters," a term often employed by the ruling Chinese Communist Party to describe mass, largely peaceful protest movements on the mainland.
However, a recent poll by Reuters found that most of Hong Kong's residents support the five demands of the protest movement, with more than one third of respondents saying they had attended a protest.
While Hong Kong's leader Carrie Lam has formally withdrawn widely hated plans to allow extradition to mainland China, she and her officials have repeatedly ruled out meeting the other four demands for an inquiry into police violence, an end to the use of the term "rioters," an amnesty for arrested protesters and fully democratic elections.
There are growing concerns that the government is planning a wider crackdown on dissent in a city that was promised freedoms of speech, association and publication under the terms of its 1997 handover to China, as well as protection from official abuse of power, with dozens of civil servants suspended and teachers threatened with sanctions for supporting the protest movement.
Reported by Wong Lok-to for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Gao Feng for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.