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14 October 2022

Seminar focuses on erosion of human rights in Hong Kong

On 19 October, a seminar will consider the state of human rights in Hong Kong, and the international response to recent developments such as the National Security Law.

A slogan, 'Kill me or free me' has been graffitied on a road.
Tensions rise after the government ban a protest, 31 August 2019

Hong Kong's Human Rights Meltdown, a seminar co-organised by the Transnational Law Institute, King’s College London and the Hong Kong Studies Association, will bring together academic experts and practitioners, many with personal experience of life in Hong Kong and, in some cases, involvement in recent litigation to defend human rights.

The seminar will coincide with the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th Congress, which opens on 16 October. The main speaker at the online event will be Professor Johannes Chan, Visiting Professor at University College London, and formerly Chair of Public Law of the Faculty of Law, the University of Hong Kong. An Honorary Senior Counsel in Hong Kong, Professor Chan has made seminal contributions to research and teaching on constitutional law in Hong Kong while also defending academic freedom and integrity in Hong Kong. He has also featured in a number of high-profile cases, including representing his colleague Professor Benny Tai, co-founder of the Occupy Movement, in his unsuccessful appeal against his conviction for “public nuisance” offences in relation to the protests.

The seminar will also hear from Eric Lai, formerly the Hong Kong Law Fellow at Georgetown University Law Center, and currently a PhD researcher in Law at SOAS University of London; Linda Wong, barrister-at-law in Hong Kong since 2002; and Professor Eva Pils, Professor of Law at King's College London. The event will be chaired by Heidi Wang-Kaeding, Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University and co-founder of the Hong Kong Studies Association.

Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 with the idea of ‘one country, two systems’ enshrined in the treaty between China and the UK and reflected in Hong Kong’s ‘mini-constitution’, the Basic Law.

Professor Pils moved to Hong Kong in 2007 and worked at the Chinese University of Hong Kong until 2014: “The Basic Law meant, in essence, that Hong Kong would be able to keep the legal system that had been created under British colonial rule. Importantly, although it was never a full democracy, the protection of human rights was strengthened and a few democratic elements were introduced prior to the handover. Moreover, the Basic Law hinted, albeit somewhat vaguely, at the prospect of further democratisation or ‘universal suffrage.’"

When I moved to Hong Kong, most people seemed surprisingly confident that ‘one country, two systems’ was going to work, not only for the 50 years ‘granted’ in the Sino-British joint declaration but, many expected, beyond that – many thought that by 2047 mainland China would have transformed itself into a system closer to the global constitutional model, leaving Hong Kong free to continue on its own development path. But by the time I left, things had started to change quite dramatically.

Professor Eva Pils

The appointment of President Xi Jinping in late 2012, and the move to a more autocratic approach on the Chinese mainland, raised concerns regarding human rights in Hong Kong. On 27 March 2013, a new campaign, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, was launched. Student protests followed in 2014, in response to what were seen as negative reforms to the electoral system, with the Occupy Movement also initiating a civil disobedience campaign. Those involved in these protests, which evolved into what is often referred to as the Umbrella Movement, complained of harassment, with many key figures subsequently imprisoned.

In 2017, President Xi spoke of a “red line” in relation to protests in the territory which, if crossed, would result in a strong response from China on the basis of “national security”.

Further mass protests followed from March 2019, in response to the proposed Fugitive Offenders amendment bill, which sought the power to extradite locals to jurisdictions where no extradition treaty currently existed, including the Chinese mainland. These protests grew over the following three months, partly in response to violent attempts to suppress them. On 16 June 2019, up to 2 million people were reported to have joined a peaceful march through Hong Kong.

Protestors in Hong Kong, 16 June 2019.
Protestors in Hong Kong, 16 June 2019.

Professor Pils: “The protests as such were not a surprise. You have to think about what the proposed legislative change would have meant for the people of Hong Kong – in Hong Kong more than anywhere else, we were very aware of the great flaws of the criminal process in China. In my own work, I had learned from criminal defence lawyers how many obstacles there were to a fair trial process – among them, the unfortunately widespread use of torture.”

The central authorities responded by imposing the National Security Law (NSL) on Hong Kong in June 2020.

The National Security Law fundamentally undermined civil liberties until then protected in Hong Kong by creating four categories of what I think should be described as crimes of political dissent. The law also became the basis for institutional changes undermining Hong Kong’s judicial process. Since the NSL’s enactment, many members of the pro-democracy opposition are being criminally investigated and prosecuted, some under the new law’s stringent provisions. Among other things, Hong Kong citizens have been prosecuted for merely using the ‘Liberate Hong Kong’ slogan, for example. Overall, this has triggered a dramatic decline of the political process and also been a very severe blow for civil society in Hong Kong.

Professor Eva Pils

The seminar will also discuss the international response, including the recent report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, and look at Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in Hong Kong.

Professor Pils: “Hong Kong society has long been affected by great socio-economic inequalities and serious violations of socio-economic rights. I think it is fair to say that even before the most recent turn for the worse, Hong Kong courts were somewhat reluctant to give effect to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. This made it all the more important that civil society organisations could work to improve the situation. There is no doubt that the clampdown on civil society in Hong Kong has an adverse effect on their ability to continue their work, or even to survive.”

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Eva  Pils

Professor of Law

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