10 March 2024, The Tablet

Hong Kong desperately needs our support – we must not abandon it

Hong Kong desperately needs our support – we must not abandon it

Hong Kong Bar Association chairperson Victor Dawes during a press conference in February on the Article 23 national security law.
AP Photo/Louise Delmotte/Alamy

The Hong Kong government published its new domestic security law on Friday, and it appears it will be fast-tracked through the pro-Beijing puppet rubber-stamp legislature with alarming speed – perhaps within days.

The law is even more draconian than the National Security Law imposed by Beijing on Hong Kong in 2020. The National Security Law has resulted in the dismantling of almost all of Hong Kong’s freedoms already. Over 66 civil society organisations, including trade unions, have closed, almost all of Hong Kong’s independent media has been shut down, and the entire pro-democracy camp has been kicked out of the Legislative Council and effectively banned from contesting elections to either the legislature or the district councils.

Most pro-democracy politicians are either in jail, in exile or threatened into silence.

More than 10,566 people have been arrested since 2019 and 3,000 charged. Of these, at least 285 have been arrested under the National Security Law, including the 76-year-old media entrepreneur, British citizen and devout Catholic Jimmy Lai, whose trial is currently underway, and 47 former pro-democracy legislators and activists, who have been in jail awaiting trial for over three years. Their crime? Holding a primary election to choose their candidates in 2020 for what should have been the Legislative Council elections.

Freedom of expression, association and assembly have been torn up; press freedom has been trampled on; academic freedom severely undermined; and increasingly, freedom of religion or belief threatened in insidious ways.

One might ask: so why does the Hong Kong government need another security law? Protests have been driven off the street, critics have been driven out of the media and opposition has been excluded from the legislature, so what threat does it feel? But the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its quislings in Hong Kong are fragile souls who fear any dissenting voice, and they want to ensure they leave no stone unturned in their campaign to eradicate alternative thought.

It is true that Hong Kong’s Basic Law – the city’s mini-constitution – requires, in Article 23, that the government enact legislation to prohibit crimes of treason, secession, sedition, subversion, theft of state secrets and to prohibit foreign political organisations from conducting political activities in the territory or establishing ties with groups in Hong Kong. But one would have thought the 2020 National Security Law covered most of those bases – in an already excessively abusive way.

It is also true that many countries – including our own – have national security laws. Protecting ‘national security’ is a primary duty of any government. But against what threats? And with what criteria? Security laws should uphold and protect fundamental freedoms and human rights, the rule of law and international treaty obligations. Hong Kong’s National Security Law does none of these things, and the new domestic law about to be enacted trashes these values completely.

The officially-named Safeguarding National Security Bill published yesterday will destroy whatever few tiny fragments of freedom remain in Hong Kong.

With the legislature stacked with paid-up pro-Beijing sold-out zombies, there is almost zero chance of a meaningful debate on the Bill and even less likelihood of amendments. It is likely to be rubber-stamped, Beijing or perhaps even North Korea-style, with 99.9% support.

For the past month, the Hong Kong government went through the charade of a “public consultation” on the legislation. They produced a consultation paper – the contents of which were alarming enough – and invited submissions. But the reaction to submissions was telling.

The organisation I co-founded and lead, Hong Kong Watch, made a submission. We also led a statement signed by over 85 civil society organisations, including some of the world’s largest – Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and Index on Censorship, for example.

On multiple occasions in recent weeks the Hong Kong government denounced us – with official statements, as well as repeated remarks by the Secretary for Security Chris Tang who described our statements as “gangster tactics” aimed at intimidating, harassing and interfering with Hong Kong affairs. When was the last time you saw a gangster draft a carefully worded, scholarly reviewed and legally analysed statement signed by over 85 international Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs)?

In their latest blast, the Hong Kong government described Hong Kong Watch and Amnesty International as “anti-China forces”. I take it as a compliment to be singled out and to be in the company of the world’s largest human rights group, but I take exception at being described as “anti-China”. On the contrary, I love China, have spent much of my adult life in and around China, have lived in China, have many Chinese friends, and it is precisely because I love China that I want its peoples to be free. It is not China I am “anti”, but the brutal, inhumane, repressive and criminal behaviour of the CCP regime against the peoples of China.

At the conclusion of their public consultation, the Hong Kong government claimed to have received 13,147 submissions, of which – the government says – 12,969 (98.64%) were supportive, 85 (0.65%) were simply raising questions, and only 94 (0.71%) raised objections. Of those 94, apparently, 10 were from “foreign anti-China groups and fugitives”. Having worked on North Korea for over 15 years, it seems Hong Kong has become Pyongyang – just with better lighting. What is the point of a public consultation if you then denounce the submissions made?

The final text of the Bill, published yesterday, includes penalties for five types of offences which were not included in the public consultation paper. In the Bill, anyone convicted of offences with seditious intention will be liable for up to seven years in jail; a person who is found to have colluded with an external force will be liable for 10 years in jail; and a person who, without reasonable excuse, possesses a publication that has seditious intentions is liable for three years’ imprisonment. There are also penalties of up to 10 years’ imprisonment for sedition-related offences and four new crimes which will be punished by up to life imprisonment. 

In addition, there are new restrictions which can ban an arrestee from speaking to a lawyer of their choice, detention without charge will be extended to up to seven days, more severe penalties for activists abroad will be applied, and all offences will apply to “anyone” outside of Hong Kong. 

Like the National Security Law, the new domestic security law in Hong Kong can – in theory – be applied extraterritorially. Which means that this very article, and what I and my colleagues do every single working day, is a criminal offence which could land us in jail if we were unfortunate enough to end up in a place within reach of the clutches of the Hong Kong or mainland China authorities.

But of most concern to readers of The Tablet is the suggestion made in remarks reported on Thursday by Hong Kong’s Secretary for Justice Lam Ting-kwok that, under the new security law, the crime of “failing to disclose the commission of treason by others” means that if a person knows that another person has committed “treason” but fails to disclose the knowledge to the authorities within a reasonable time, that person is guilty of a crime. And the Bill provides a 14-year sentence in such circumstances.

For many religious traditions, and especially for the Catholic Church, the practice of what is known as the Sacrament of Penance (otherwise known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation or “Confession”) is a religious act of absolutely pivotal, sacrosanct importance. Yet at the heart of Confession is the absolutely vital principle of confidentiality.

A confession is made by an individual, before a priest, in front of God and what is said in that conversation stays completely confidential between only three beings: the person making their confession, the priest hearing that confession, and God.

For the Catholic Church, what is known as the “Seal of Confession” is exactly that. While a priest might encourage a penitent who has committed a serious crime to confess that crime to the authorities, the priest cannot report it himself and must never be held criminally liable for having heard that confession.

To force a priest to reveal what has been said in Confession, against his will and conscience and in total violation of the privacy of the individual confessing, is a total violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and as such is completely unacceptable and must be condemned by people of conscience of all faiths and none throughout the world.

The National Security Law, and this new law, mean Hong Kong is already eroding its obligations to uphold freedom of religion or belief, as set out in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Two significant reports on the state of freedom of religion or belief in Hong Kong have been published in recent months, first by Hong Kong Watch, titled “Sell Out My Soul”: The Impending Threats to Freedom of Religion or Belief in Hong Kong, and then by the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, titled Hostile Takeover: The CCP and Hong Kong’s Religious Communities.

The international community, and all envoys and ambassadors-at-large for religious freedom around the world must co-ordinate and speak out urgently on Hong Kong’s Article 23 legislation and its religious freedom implications.

Pope Francis and the Vatican must also speak out – if possible at the Angelus tomorrow – to pray for Hong Kong, to keep the “Seal of Confession” sacrosanct in Hong Kong and to defend freedom of conscience in Hong Kong where it is most threatened.

Other religious leaders – especially the leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and others – must also recognise that now is the moment to speak out and to use their good offices to protest against this new security legislation in Hong Kong and the threats it poses to people of faith and conscience.

It would be easy to think that the battle is lost. It would be understandable to retreat from the battlefield. But to do so would be entirely wrong. Now, when Hong Kong needs our support, our solidarity and our prayers in its darkest hour, we must not abandon Hong Kong. And as Catholics, we cannot surrender the sanctity and confidentiality of the confessional.

Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer. He is the co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and Deputy Chair of the UK Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and a board member of the Stop Uyghur Genocide Campaign.



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