China has undermined Hong Kong's judicial and parliamentary independence: U.S. report

A citywide crackdown on dissent continues amid sweeping electoral, judicial and education changes.
By Man Hoi Yan, Gigi Lee and King Man Ho
2021.11.19
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China has undermined Hong Kong's judicial and parliamentary independence: U.S. report Hong Kong pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai (centre R) leaves the Court of Final Appeal after his bail was denied in Hong Kong, Feb. 9, 2021.
AFP

Changes to Hong Kong's political system imposed on the city by the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) amid an ongoing crackdown on public dissent have turned the city's legislature into a "rubber stamp," and undermined the independence of judges, according to a U.S. government report.

"Changes to Hong Kong’s elections and the composition of its legislature now ensure pro-Beijing lawmakers will always have a majority, turning the once-competitive Legislative Council into a rubber-stamp parliament," the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (ESRC) said in its annual report to Congress this week.

Meanwhile, judges in cases brought under a draconian national security law that took effect on July 1, 2020 are now chosen from a list approved by the CCP-backed national security apparatus, "effectively stripping the Hong Kong judiciary of its former independence," the report said.

"The changes enable the Hong Kong government to ensure all national security cases are assigned to progovernment preferred judges, guaranteeing outcomes favorable to the government and the CCP," it said.

Taiwan strategic analyst Shih Chien-yu said he was surprised that the report named some national security judges, suggesting the U.S. has carried out highly detailed research for the report.

"This is a review of the erosion of judicial independence in Hong Kong over the past year, and of the principles underlying a fair trial," Shih told RFA. "It names [judges] to show that the situation has deteriorated very rapidly."

"The criticism is very direct, showing that [the authors] think the situation is already very serious, and is unlikely to change," he said.

CCP version of history

The report also cited new powers given to the government to prevent people from entering and leaving the city, amid a net outflow of tens of thousands of permanent residents in the year after the law took effect.

Sweeping changes to the city's educational curriculum now require teachers to deliver CCP-approved  versions of history, amid a culture of informing on anyone criticizing the government in class, something that is banned under the national security law, the report said.

"Authorities are using these new powers to fire [teachers] for unapproved speech," it said. "Educators are forced to distort reality and history to portray the [CCP] in a positive light."

It said the government also has the power and capability to impose internet censorship on Hong Kong at any time, amid an ongoing crackdown on media criticism of the government that has included the forced closure of the pro-democracy Apple Daily newspaper and the arrests of several senior journalists.

Hong Kong Democracy Council founder Samuel Chu said the report is an accurate reflection of Hong Kong's reality, which is that the city is now much like any other part of China.

"They recommend some very specific actions, such as treating Hong Kong as part of China’s membership of the WTO, and how [China] suppresses or makes use of U.S. companies to advance their plans in Hong Kong," Chu said.

Political commentator Joseph Cheng said the wording of the report makes very clear that Hong Kong is now under authoritarian rule.

"This report attaches great importance to the freedoms [once] enjoyed by the Hong Kong people, especially with regard to immigration and emigration," Cheng said.

"They are mainly concerned with ... whether Hong Kong people will be subject to unnecessary and unjustified restrictions on leaving Hong Kong," he said.

"The report is a pretty damning criticism of Hong Kong."

Jimmy Lai honored

The Hong Kong government rejected the findings.

"The [Hong Kong] government once again urges the United States to respect the international law and basic norms governing international relations," it said in a statement on Nov. 18.

"Any attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of China through Hong Kong will not succeed and we will continue to discharge our responsibility of safeguarding the national security resolutely."

In New York, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) presented jailed Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai with its 2021 Gwyn Ifill Press Freedom Award.

"Lai has become a powerful symbol of the struggle to maintain press freedom in Hong Kong as China’s Communist Party exerts ever greater control over the territory," the CPJ said in a statement on its website.

"In prison, denied bail, the outspoken critic of the Chinese government and advocate for democracy faces charges that could keep him in jail for the rest of his life," it said.

Lai faces trial under the national security law for "collusion with a foreign power," linked to alleged attempts to lobby the U.S. to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.

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