Hong Kong: Crackdown on democratic freedoms continues with mass arrests

Global civil society alliance CIVICUS condemns the mass arbitrary arrests in Hong Kong this week in an unprecedented crackdown on democratic freedoms and calls for the immediate release of all those detained. The arrests are the clearest sign yet that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under President Xi Jinping is determined to stamp out political opposition in the region.

53 people, including pro-democracy activists, opposition candidates and former lawmakers, and lawyers, were arrested and detained under the draconian National Security Law (NSL). The 53 have been accused of ‘subverting state power’ by holding and participating in primary elections held by Hong Kong’s pro-democratic party in July 2020. At the time, China declared the primaries ‘illegal’. 

Among those arrested is  Benny Tai, an activist and legal scholar. Former legislators James To, Lam Cheuk-ting, Claudia Mo and Leung Kwok-hung and Eddie Chu Hoi-dick were also arrested. Others include young pro-democracy campaigners Lester Shum, Gwyneth Ho, Tiffany Yuen and Jeffrey Andrews. Police also searched the home of already-detained activist Joshua Wong, as well as three news outlets.

The arrests took place in early-morning raids on 6 January, compounding a climate of fear pervasive in Hong Kong since the NSL was adopted in June 2020. The NSL has been heavily criticized by human rights groups for undermining fair trial rights, providing sweeping new powers to the police, increasing restrictions on civil society and the media and weakening judicial oversight. Protests against the law were some of the biggest in Hong Kong’s history.

Following its adoption, the law was immediately used to prosecute activists and critics, prompting a statement in July 2020 from the UN Human Rights Office that ‘such laws should never be used to criminalize conduct and expression that is protected under international human rights law.’ The repression enabled by the law, of which this week’s mass arrests are just the latest example, clearly shows once again that the concerns raised by the law and protests against it were entirely justified.

More than 10,000 people have been arrested overall in connection with the 2019 protests against the NSL, and more than 2,000 have faced prosecution on charges such as “rioting”, “illegal assembly” and “possession of weapons”. In December 2020, prominent pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam were convicted on charges relating to peaceful protests in 2019 and handed jail sentences. Wong was sentenced to 13.5 months in jail, Chow to 10 months and Lam to seven months. 

In September 2020, CIVICUS joined over 300 organisations in endorsing a call by UN experts for a Special Session of the Human Rights Council to evaluate the range of violations by China’s government, including those in Hong Kong, and to establish an impartial and independent UN mechanism to closely monitor, analyze, and report annually on that topic.  Organizations also urged the UN Secretary-General to appoint a Special Envoy, consistent with his Call to Action on Human Rights, and called call on the High Commissioner for Human Rights to monitor and publicly report on China’s sweeping rights violations. 

As the Council prepares to sit again in February for its 46th Session, CIVICUS reiterates these calls. China became a member of the Council in October 2020 – taking action to address its human rights violations is not only crucial to support those on the ground, including activists in Hong Kong who face persecution and incarceration, but it would also send a strong message that no country is above scrutiny. At the moment, the international community is falling far short on both counts.