The National Security Law in Hong Kong: adverse impacts and increased risk of reprisals

Drawing on legal analysis and illustrative cases, this report shows that one of the many challenges posed by the National Security Law for Hong Kong is an effective criminalisation of engagement with the UN - and as a result, a chilling effect on defenders' engagement.

As part of ISHR's work to track worrying trends of reprisals, including by China, this new report on Hong Kong analyses the connection between the National Security Law, imposed by the People's Republic of China in 2020, and growing risks of reprisals against a backdrop of the broader adverse impacts on civil society, human rights and democratic institutions.

Executive Summary:

On 22 May 2020, the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) approved a decision supporting a national security law for Hong Kong if Hong Kong did not ‘legislate national security law according to the Basic Law as soon as possible.’ The decision purportedly sought to enact laws for ‘a sound legal system’ in the territory.

Just over a month later, on 30 June 2020, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee announced and adopted the National Security Law for Hong Kong (hereafter, the NSL). It entered into force on 1 July 2020.[1]

The NSL has reshaped Hong Kong’s legal system, effectively trumping all local Hong Kong legislation, including the Bill of Rights and the guarantees under the Basic Law – long regarded as Hong Kong’s ‘mini constitution’. These are the very laws which flow from and reaffirm Hong Kong’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR).

Since the promulgation of the NSL, Hong Kong’s once-vibrant environment for civil society has undergone a sea change. Many activists have been prosecuted and jailed for their activities. Many NGOs, both local and international, have made the decision to cease operations, or dramatically shift their work, while other activists and NGO workers have chosen to – or been forced to – abandon their rights work, or leave the city and continue work in exile. As explained by the Chairman of the Board of Amnesty International, whose regional office was located in Hong Kong until December 2021, the NSL has made it effectively impossible for human rights organisations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear.

The relationship between government and civil society is facing new strains, directly linked to the NSL, that has impacts on the political climate in the city. The Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) used to provide a platform for NGOs and civil society in general to express their views on a range of human rights issues; however, subsequent to the adoption of the NSL and skewed ‘patriots only’ election, the LegCo no longer maintains a commitment to allowing alternative views or civil society voices to be heard. Since 2021, there has been no public official agenda item where civil society groups in Hong Kong were invited to give their views.

It is against this backdrop that we situate this report as a part of the ongoing effort to examine the substantive and qualitative impact that the NSL has had on Hong Kong’s civil society, with a focus on its ability to engage with the UN.

This report first provides an extensive analysis of the provisions of the NSL, and the potential impacts of specific legal provisions on human rights advocacy from the perspectives of Hong Kong civil society and international NGOs – whether or not they are present on the territory of Hong Kong. This includes four new crimes defined in the NSL – subversion, collusion, secession, and terrorist activities – as well as the resurrection of colonial-era crimes like sedition which are increasingly included under a national-security umbrella.

The report also considers recent cases and judgments targeting civil society that demonstrate how Hong Kong courts and law enforcement authorities have implemented and interpreted the NSL in practice. From peaceful assembly to freedom of expression, the courts have sought to punish the exercise of ICCPR rights as contrary to national security prerogatives.

As a result of the legal landscape and practical evidence of enforcement, the authors conclude that individuals or organisations based in Hong Kong – or even having links to Hong Kong – cannot reasonably continue to assume the ability to safely engage with the UN over human rights issues. The NSL directly places them in a new and heightened risk of reprisals and intimidation.

The report concludes with a forecast of where the political trends in Hong Kong are likely headed, and recommendations to the international community, including but not limited to:

  • stepping up means of preventing and mitigating intimidation and reprisal;
  • ensuring concrete, effective work to follow up on UN reviews, backed by the UN High Commissioner;
  • and above all, ensuring that organisations fighting for the respect of rights in Hong Kong – whether in the territory or in the diaspora – can do so in a safe and enabling environment.

The evolution began with the NSL, and more general changes in the legal and political environment of Hong Kong, seem destined to shape this once-vibrant democratic city into an authoritarian society. A clear understanding of what is at stake, coherent international support, and prompt action to safeguard activism and democratic institutions, will in the years to come be essential for a rights-respecting Hong Kong.

[1] The full text of the law in English can be accessed here.