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Illustration by Security Management

NGOs Continue to Leave Hong Kong

Human rights group Amnesty International is the latest in a line of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other humanitarian groups to cease operations in Hong Kong as a result of the 2020 National Security Law and its chilling effect on political dissent and international involvement.

According to an announcement from the organization, Amnesty International will close its two offices in Hong Kong—one local office and one regional office—by the end of 2021. The local office focused on human rights education within Hong Kong, while the regional office was dedicated to research, advocacy, and campaigning work throughout Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

“This decision, made with a heavy heart, has been driven by Hong Kong’s national security law, which has made it effectively impossible for human rights organizations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government,” said Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, chair of Amnesty’s International Board.

“Hong Kong has long been an ideal regional base for international civil society organizations, but the recent targeting of local human rights and trade union groups signals an intensification of the authorities’ campaign to rid the city of all dissenting voices,” she continued in an Amnesty news release. “It is increasingly difficult for us to keep operating in such an unstable environment.”

In a June 2021 briefing, In the Name of National Security, Amnesty International outlined how the law “has given the authorities free rein to illegitimately criminalize dissent while stripping away the rights of those it targets.” The National Security Law is broadly worded, criminalizing secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces.

A June report from Georgetown University’s Center for Asian Law said that the law mirrored legislation in mainland China that tightly restricts contact between local and international NGOs and threatens activists for alleged collusion with foreign powers, the Associated Press reported.

“Given this very real risk, foreign NGOs will face difficult questions about whether to travel to Hong Kong, whom to meet with, or even whether to continue working on human rights and democratic development in Hong Kong at all,” the report said.

According to Bais, a crackdown under the law has forced at least 35 groups—including unions and activist groups—to disband in 2021 so far. Human Rights Watch left Hong Kong after China penalized it in retaliation for American legislative support for 2019 protests in Hong Kong. The Confederation of Trade Unions—an umbrella organization of more than 70 affiliate unions—voted on 3 October to disband in the face of growing governmental pressure. After state media attacked it as a “malignant tumor,” the Hong Kong Professional Teacher’s Union announced it would dissolve this year.

In August, four student union leaders were arrested on charges of “advocating terrorism” under the National Security Law.

Meanwhile, a Hong Kong court convicted an activist, Ma Chun-man, today of inciting secession for shouting pro-independence slogans (“Hong Kong people, establish our state” and “Hong Kong independence: The only way out”) during a series of protests. Ma is the second defendant to face trial under the security law, the New York Times reported.

While the first trial involved an act of violence—crashing a motorcycle into police officers—as well as speech and slogans, Ma was convicted solely for his speech and the slogans displayed on signs in peaceful protests and in interviews. Ma argued that he had not been calling for independence from China but instead wanted to show that free speech still existed under the National Security Law.

One group that is still standing in the city is the Hong Kong Journalists Association, despite ongoing public criticism from the Hong Kong security secretary. According to the Times, the association’s distance from politics may have insulated it from attack so far, but increasingly vocal calls from state authorities to disclose its membership and stop allowing student members are putting the pressure on.

“We will try to fight to the last moment,” said Ronson Chan, the association’s chairman, to the Times. “But honestly, it’s a gamble. How cruelly will the Beijing government treat us? We know the history of journalists in the People’s Republic of China.”