Twenty-one years after Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule, a New York-based rights group has hit out at the erosion of civil and political rights in the city.
Hong Kong typically marks the July 1, 1997 handover anniversary with large public protests highlighting the social and political tensions of the day, but the event has become embroiled in negotiations between organizers and police, who have imposed fresh restrictions this year.
Police have warned that anyone joining the march later than its officially designated starting point, a specific grassy area in the city's Victoria Park, could find themselves charged with public order offenses.
The dispute comes as Human Rights Watch (HRW) hit out at the Hong Kong government for failing to protect its citizens' civil and political rights in the face of growing interventions by Beijing in the city's political life.
"The Chinese government has kept chipping away at Hong Kong’s freedoms, and has stepped up these efforts in recent years," HRW China director Sophie Richardson said in a statement on the group's website.
"From publicly intimidating an academic for his peaceful speech to barring pro-democracy figures from public office, what emerges is a chilling offensive against basic rights in Hong Kong," she said.
She said that HRW had written to Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam when she took office last year to urge her to lift political restrictions on the right to stand for elections, reopen the process for political reform, and argue the case for fully democratic elections with Beijing.
Call to drop charges
The group also called on Lam to drop all charges against opposition leaders and pro-democracy activists for their peaceful activities, and retract her government's public criticism of University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai for making hypothetical remarks about Hong Kong independence at an academic symposium.
Since then, the Hong Kong government further eroded civil and political rights enshrined in the city's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and international human rights law, HRW said.
It cited further prosecutions of pro-democracy figures and an effort to exclude them from public office, growing interference with academic and publishing freedoms and the possible introduction of a national anthem law that will affect people's right to freedom of expression.
It also called on the Hong Kong government to investigate the Hong Kong bookseller Lee Po’s suspected abduction from within the city's separate legal jurisdiction, and the ruling Chinese Communist Party's influence on the freedom to publish in the city.
"Chief Executive Lam has repeatedly failed to defend the freedoms of Hong Kong people from heavy-handed Chinese interference," Richardson said. "But it’s not too late for Lam to stand up to Beijing and defend Hong Kong people’s rights."
Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said he fully agreed with the charges laid at Carrie Lam's door.
"We have seen that there is less and less room for maneuver, whether it be with regard to academic and press freedom, or even what one can do as a member of the Legislative Council (LegCo)," he said.
"Even our right to stand for elections has been affected."
Under a ruling from Beijing, would-be election candidates can be barred from standing if the administration deems their political position to be too close to advocating independence or separateness from China.
Raymond Chan, a pro-democracy lawmaker for the People Power coalition, said it seems that the "worst-case scenario" is now happening to the city.
"[Beijing] is very quick to get involved in things that don't concern them, for example prosecuting Occupy Central protesters, stripping elected lawmakers of their seats, and the independence of the judiciary," Chan said.
"Forget democracy; now it's human rights and our rule of law that are deteriorating."
On the democratic island of Taiwan, which Beijing would like to reclaim under a similar "one country, two systems" arrangement offered to Hong Kong, political commentators said Hong Kong is heading fast towards "one country, one system."
"The way things stand at the moment, things seem to be developing ... further and further in the direction of one country, one system," Fan Shih-ping, political studies professor at National Taiwan Normal University, told a recent symposium.
"Judicial independence and freedom of the press are being eroded, and there are growing ideological controls on public speech," Fan said.
Reported by Lam Kwok-lap and Chung Kwang-cheng for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.