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Hong Kong is being 'robbed of its rights'

William Yang Interview
May 28, 2020

Wilson Leung, a Hong Kong barrister, told DW that pro-democracy activists fear being prosecuted under Beijing's proposed "national security law," adding that the future of free speech is very uncertain.

Hong Kong
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/V. Yu

The National People's Congress in Beijing endorsed a resolution Thursday allowing the Standing Committee to create a national security law tailored for Hong Kong that would prohibit acts of of secession, subversion, terrorism or conspiring with foreign influences in the semi-autonomous territory.

The Hong Kong government will also be required to allow agencies based in mainland China to operate in the city.

Hong Kong enjoys a level of civil liberties and autonomy not seen elsewhere in China under a mini constitution called the Basic Law. Opponents of the proposed legislation from Beijing say it represents a significant erosion of these rights, especially freedom of speech.

Activists say they fear Beijing will soon be able impose arbitrary detentions and crackdowns on free speech and dissent like in mainland China.

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DW spoke with a Hong Kong-based barrister Wilson Leung about what the law means for the future of civil rights in Hong Kong. He is concerned the new legislation could be set up to circumvent Hong Kong's legal system.

DW: What worries Hong Kongers the most about the proposed national security law?

Wilson Leung: The fear is that Beijing will use the new law to suppress peaceful resistance, opposition and activism in the same way authorities right now in mainland China oppress dissidents.

So-called subversion is one of the criminal offenses listed under the law. Notable cases in mainland China prosecuted under this charge include the late civil rights activist Liu Xiaobo, pastor Wang Yi and the human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang.

Now many activists in Hong Kong are very afraid that they could be similarly prosecuted.

Read more: Liu Xiaobo, China's dissident 'without enemies'

Joshua Wong speaks to DW

Are authorities in Beijing already moving in this direction?

It seems they are. A report in the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times recently said that critical tweets by pro-democracy businessman Jimmy Lai could be considered as evidence of an attempt to undermine state power.

And former Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung said that the annual June 4 Tiananmen massacre vigil in Hong Kong could be banned under the new law.

What do you make of the assertion from Beijing that the law is necessary to fight terrorism?

Read more: Hong Kong security law 'needed to tackle terrorism'

I think that dictatorships around the world, including the Chinese Communist Party, exaggerate the threat of terrorism to suppress the rights of millions of people

UN special rapporteurs on human rights have repeatedly told Beijing about the danger of overextending Hong Kong's existing anti-terrorism laws.

Despite the existing legal measures already in place in Hong Kong for fighting terrorism, the leadership in Beijing, and Hong Kong's chief executive, think it is necessary to pass this restrictive security law with the justification of a supposed terrorist threat. It is easy to see that this is just a facade.

Read more: US reconsiders Hong Kong's special treatment, seeks China sanctions

Is there any evidence of terrorist attacks planned by pro-democracy activists?

Evidence of terrorist activity or plans in Hong Kong is very thin. There have been a couple of arrests under dubious circumstances for bombs that were allegedly uncovered.

However, in these cases there was mostly no connection to pro-democracy protesters the mainstream movement.

What we are seeing here is the well-known instrumentalization of buzz words like "terrorism" and "national security" for the oppression of civil rights.

And in light of Beijing's actions against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang province under these auspices, I find this very concerning.

Do you really believe that the measures taken by the Chinese leadership in Xinjiang could be repeated in Hong Kong?

Certainly not in the extent of the amount of people who have been put into the camps. However, the underlaying approach is the same: You take a very limited number of violent incidents and exaggerate the extent in order to rob many people of their rights.

Read more: Opinion: Hong Kong is lost

Is there any way to prevent abuse of the law?

It will be very difficult legally. First of all, it is very unlikely that the new law will be subordinate to the Hong Kong Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression, among other things. Additionally, Hong Kong Bill of Rights is a local law whereas the new security law is national.

It is important to remember that the final authority to interpret Hong Kong's Basic Law is the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. So, Beijing could say that the new security law cannot be restrained by the Bill of Rights.

With such an interpretation, the new law would automatically be superior to the Bill of Rights.

What other threats can the new security law pose to Hong Kong?

The big fear in Hong Kong is that the new law will not be subordinate to mechanisms protecting human rights enshrined in Hong Kong's current legal system.

It is also unclear whether complaints over abuse of the security law will be allowed to be heard in Hong Kong courts.

After all, officials from mainland China are supposed to responsible application of the new security law. Will they be arrested and interrogated by Hong Kong officials if someone complains? I think that is very unlikely.

The big question is whether the new security law will be fully enacted outside the jurisdiction of Hong Kong's existing legal system. If the Standing Committee in Beijing says it is, then Hong Kong courts will no longer be able to intervene.

Read more: Hong Kong crisis: What you need to know