Updated: Aug 1
Submission to the United Nations Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review of People’s Republic of China (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region) (2024)
The Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation
The Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation (CFHK Foundation) was set up to fight for Hong Kong and its people as China continues its massive crackdown on the city. The CFHK Foundation defends political prisoners like Jimmy Lai, free media, and Hong Kong people’s right to live peacefully under the terms of the Basic Law of Hong Kong which was put into effect by China in 1997. Hong Kong’s fate is linked to the preservation of freedom, democracy, and international law in the region and around the world.
Since it was founded, the CFHK Foundation has committed to promoting international awareness of Hong Kong’s human rights situation and the impact of the National Security Law (NSL), which was introduced in Hong Kong in 2020 to stifle any protests, demonstrations, critical journalism, or other opposition to the Hong Kong authorities or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In addition to advocating for the release of political prisoners in Hong Kong, the CFHK Foundation presses for political and economic consequences for China’s failure to keep its promises regarding Hong Kong’s freedoms through engagements with world leaders, policymakers, media, human rights defenders, and the grassroots community.
1. Despite legal obligations, treaties, and repeated promises that Hong Kong would continue to enjoy its existing freedoms, China has destroyed Hong Kong’s free media, freedom of speech, free assembly, education, and many other aspects of the democratic way of life that had become the norm in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover from the United Kingdom. China has tightened the space for citizens to engage in politics and endangered the freedoms detailed in the Basic Law, which led to mass pro-democracy protests in 2019 and 2020. Subsequently, the CCP imposed the NSL in Hong Kong in 2020 to stifle any protests, demonstrations, critical journalism, or other opposition to the Hong Kong authorities or the CCP. With more than 1500 political prisoners in Hong Kong, civil society continues to be demolished, and the legal system is bent for political purposes.
2. This report provides a brief overview of the major human rights concerns in Hong Kong since the last UPR in 2018. It highlights three areas of concern: A) access to justice, independence of the judiciary and the right to a fair trial; B) press freedom; and C) religious freedom.
Access to justice, independence of the judiciary and the right to a fair trial
3. In its previous UPR, China accepted numerous recommendations to promote openness in the judicial system of Hong Kong including to guarantee fair trials and transparent legal procedures; allow all defendants unhindered access to their chosen lawyers; prompt notification to their families on their status and health; guarantee the protection of lawyers against any form of harassment, violence or attempts to impede or interfere with the defence of their clients. However, the independence of the judiciary of Hong Kong and the procedural safeguards for access to justice and the right to a fair trial have only declined since.
Lack of Judicial Transparency and Fair Trials
4. The NSL, which was imposed in 2020, allows political officials to make decisions that affect key aspects of legal cases. First, it gives power to the Chief Executive of Hong Kong to appoint designated judges to handle national security offence cases. The criteria of appointment and removal of NSL-designated judges are unspecified in the law. The HKSAR also refused to provide a full list of information with the designated judges and magistrates.
5. The NSL authorises the Secretary of Justice – the head of the Department of Justice which supervises all NSL cases – to exclude a jury for a trial if there is a need to protect state secrets, or the personal safety of jurors and their family members, as well as if “foreign factors” are involved. The decision is not subject to judicial or administrative review. Trial by jury has been used by Hong Kong’s common law legal system for 178 years. As of the date of this submission, no NSL trial has been conducted in front of a jury. The appointment arrangement and jury exclusion are at odds with the principle of judicial independence.
Hindered Access to Chosen Lawyers
6. The HKSAR government passed a law in May 2023 allowing the Chief Executive of Hong Kong to ban foreign lawyers from working on NSL cases. Prior to the passage of this law, the Hong Kong government spent months to block British practitioner Timothy Owen from representing Jimmy Lai, the founder of pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily and a vocal Chinese human rights defender.
7. Jimmy Lai’s trial was originally scheduled to begin in November 2022. However, the HKSAR government asked Beijing to intervene and eventually passed a law to block defendants from access to their chosen lawyers – another departure from the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Basic Law. As a 75-year-old, Jimmy Lai is now the oldest political prisoner in Hong Kong and has spent over 900 days in prison at the time of writing.
8. Since the 2019 pro-democracy protests, Hong Kong authorities have increased the use of pre-trial detention to restrict defendants’ right to due process. In 2022, 30% of the 2,890 defendants subject to prosecution were still waiting for judicial proceedings, according to Security Secretary Chris Tang. According to the Correctional Services Department’s data in September 2022, 35% of the total prison population are in custody pending trial – a record-high ratio since 2000. Many have spent months – some more than a year – in jail awaiting trial.
9. Most of the 47 activists who took part in the democratic primaries in 2020 – known as the Hong Kong 47 – have been locked behind bars since they were charged under the NSL in February 2021. As of the date of this submission, they have been in jail for 870 days as they begin the 163rd day of their trial.
10. There is a significantly low chance that individuals arrested for political reasons will obtain bail. The decisions to grant bail have been inconsistent as well. In most of the NSL cases, defendants must prove that they “will not continue to commit acts endangering national security,” which violates the principle of common law that courts treat all defendants as innocent until they are proven guilty. They are denied bail or given with stringent bail conditions, assuming they are criminals.
Harassment and Persecution of Lawyers
11. Lawyers who take on human rights cases or have criticised the NSL’s harm to the rule of law have become a target of intimidation by the HKSAR government and state-controlled media, prompting dozens of lawyers to flee abroad. Methods deployed in the campaign of intimidation include GPS tracking devices placed under cars, ambushes by state-controlled media reporters, as well as anonymous threats sent by mail, text messages and email.
12. Michael Vidler, one of the city’s top human rights lawyers, left Hong Kong in April 2022 after his law firm was named six times in a ruling that convicted four pro-democracy protesters on political charges, followed by state-controlled media’s reports about him. Paul Harris, the former Bar Association chairman, also left Hong Kong after being questioned by the national security police. Both Vidler and Harris were hounded by reporters from state-controlled media outlets at the airport as they departed. Furthermore, the HKSAR government teed up with state media to remove dissents in Hong Kong’s two legal associations by publicly criticising and privately threatening those who wish to engage with the associations on issues such as the rule of law and freedom of speech.
13. More prominent leading rights lawyers have been detained for defending human rights, including Chow Hang-tung. As a human rights lawyer, she was sentenced to jail for her involvement in the Hong Kong Alliance, an advocacy group which organised annual candlelight vigils in remembrance of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. Despite being imprisoned and facing two separate NSL charges, Chow continues to voice opposition and resist the Chinese regime behind bars. On 4 June, 2023, Chow initiated a 34-hour hunger strike to commemorate the 34th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. She was immediately sent to solitary confinement.
14. In the United Nations Human Rights Committee’s 2022 concluding observations, the committee noted the harassment and intimidation faced by lawyers like Chow and called on China to take measures to protect lawyers, particularly those who represent opposition figures or protesters and who request judicial reviews, from harassment, intimidation and attacks. In early 2023, in a communication with the HKSAR government, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded the arbitrary nature of Chow’s deprivation of liberty and called for her release.
15. To promote access to justice, independence of the judiciary and the right to a fair trial, the CFHK Foundation call on member states of the United Nations to recommend the follow measures in relation to the HKSAR at the Fourth Cycle UPR of the People’s Republic of China:
Repeal the NSL which is used to criminalise peaceful opposition and undermine freedom of expression in Hong Kong.
Allow open reporting of pre-trial proceedings and disclosure of all parties involved in a national security case.
Disclose the names of designated NSL judges and open these appointments for judicial or administrative review.
Clarify the criteria of appointment and removal of NSL-designated judges which is unspecified in the law.
Restore the right of defendants using legal aid to choose their own lawyer.
Restore the previous status of the secretary for justice as a non-political appointee.
Ensure the practice of trial by jury in all national security cases and remove the secretary for justice’s unilateral, unchallengeable power to revoke the jury trial right.
Permit national security defendants to have foreign lawyers represent them without executive branch review, in line with non-NSL cases.
Allow all defendants unhindered access to their chosen lawyers, prompt notification to their families and transparent legal procedures.
Restore the presumption of bail in national security cases and eliminate pre-trial detention for non-violent and low risk offenders.
Stop all acts of intimidation, harassment and attacks on human rights lawyers, particularly those who represent opposition figures or protesters and who request judicial reviews.
Immediately and unconditionally release and drop charges against all human rights defenders and lawyers charged with political crimes, including Chow Hang-tung, Albert Ho, and Lawrence Lau Wai-Chung.
Access to a free press
16. In its previous UPR, China claimed that individuals in Hong Kong are guaranteed and granted access to the freedom of the press. China stated, “The government of the Hong Kong SAR has continuously created an appropriate environment in which the press can flourish freely, and will not interfere in the internal operations of the media”. China provided evidence of proactively creating a supportive environment for the press by sharing how the Hong Kong government launched government-accredited press conferences in 2017.
17. However, the Hong Kong authorities have shut down and censored numerous media outlets as well as arrested journalists while on the job.
Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily
18. The ongoing case of Jimmy Lai and the closure of Apple Daily exemplifies how the Hong Kong government continues to erode press freedom in Hong Kong. Mr Lai is the owner of Apple Daily, which was one of the most prominent pro-democracy media outlets in Hong Kong. After the imposition of the NSL in June 2020, Mr Lai was arrested in August 2020 for questionable fraud charges. Despite being a British citizen, Hong Kong has prevented Mr Lai from receiving legally promised consular access. He has received multiple convictions related to his pro-democracy advocacy since his initial arrest.
19. In June 2021, Apple Daily was raided by the Hong Kong police. Six other Apple Daily staff members were arrested, including Yeung Ching-kee, Cheung Kim-hung, Ryan Law, Lam Man-chung, Chan Pui-man, and Fung Wai-kong. They remain in jail.
Closure of Media Outlets
20. In December 2021, Stand News, a non-profit online news source in Hong Kong, was raided. Its senior staff were arrested, and its doors permanently closed. In January 2022, Citizen News and Mad Dog Daily announced their closures due to security risk concerns. At least three additional media outlets did the same. Radio Television Hong Kong (RTHK), which previously launched bold investigations, had a pro-Beijing management imposed on it that censors content that does not align with the message of the Chinese Communist Party.
21. The Committee to Protect Journalists included Hong Kong for the first time in their annual survey of jailed journalists in 2021. In 2022, Hong Kong experienced the most significant drop, 68 places, in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Hong Kong was 148th out of 180 countries for press freedom. In 2023, there were 13 journalists detained in Hong Kong. In 2023, Hong Kong Sinks to Worst Rating in New Global Report on Civic Freedoms was the title of CIVICUS Monitor’s annual tracker on fundamental freedoms in regard to Hong Kong. Hong Kong received its worst rating yet and was downgraded from a ‘repressed’ to ‘closed’ city. CIVICUS attributed this decline to the imposition of the NSL and noted how the Hong Kong government has closed independent media outlets.
22. Despite the Hong Kong government creating government-sponsored press conferences, the Hong Kong authorities have prevented accredited journalists from attending certain events including the government’s National Security Education Day event in April 2023, evading questions as to why.
23. Journalists have been targeted while on the job in Hong Kong. Choy Yuk-ling, former journalist for RTHK, was convicted and fined HK$6,000 (US$733) for allegedly producing false statements while carrying out her reporting duties to trace the vehicle information of individuals who attacked innocent victims at a subway station. Recently, her case was overturned on appeal.
24. Gwyneth Ho, former journalist for Stand News, was hit with a stick while filming an attack on pro-democracy protesters at a train station. Ho was arrested in January 2021 for participating in the unofficial democratic primary elections in 2020. She also received a six-month prison sentence for participating in a June 2020 Tiananmen Square Massacre vigil.
25. Jessica Lo, an intern and part-time journalist for NowTV, was kicked twice and verbally attacked while covering a pro-Beijing rally outside of RTHK.
26. Journalists in Hong Kong have also been intimidated and harassed. In March 2023, a Hong Kong Free Press court reporter filmed two men following her for approximately one hour on her way to work. Around the same time, the Hong Kong Journalists Association received notice that multiple journalists were being followed by unidentified men.
27. While the Hong Kong High Court overturned the conviction against Choy Yuk-ling, attacks on journalists often go without penalty. To guarantee that journalists are protected and Hong Kongers continue to have access to a free press, the CFHK Foundation calls on member states of the United Nations to recommend the follow measures in relation to the HKSAR:
Repeal the NSL which is used to criminalise the free press in Hong Kong.
Release British citizen Jimmy Lai, who has been behind bars for almost 1,000 consecutive days for simply publishing the truth.
Release all journalists imprisoned for covering social events in Hong Kong, including Gwyneth Ho and the Apple Daily 7.
Ensure a free media environment from intimidation and harassment of journalists and prosecute those involved in such activities in an open, fair trial.
Encourage free media outlets, including Apple Daily and Stand News, to resume publications.
Promote freedom of press and media in Hong Kong as outlined in the Basic Law.
Develop an independent reporting and support hotline for journalists as they encounter intimidation and harassment.
Cease government censorship of content from independent media.
Access to freely express religious beliefs
28. In its previous UPR, China claimed it was accelerating the development of laws to protect the freedom of religious belief. The report highlights Macao’s religious diversity and every individual’s right to embrace the religion of their choice. The report does not explicitly reference religious freedom in Hong Kong. However, similar to the independence of the judiciary and the freedom of the press, religious freedom is increasingly under threat in Hong Kong.
Religious Individuals Repressed
29. In 2021, the United States (US) Department of State’s Report on International Religious Freedom: China – Hong Kong details how the Hong Kong government has assaulted Christians, the Falun Dafa Association and individuals who exercise their religious beliefs.
30. Christians including Jimmy Lai, Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow, Benny Tai and Martin Lee have been or are currently behind bars. At the end of 2019, 79-year-old retired Baptist preacher Chu Yiu-ming received a 16-month jail sentence for galvanising civil “disobedience”.
31. In May 2020, two Chinese nuns working at the unofficial diplomatic mission of the Vatican in Hong Kong were arrested by Chinese mainland authorities while visiting the Hebei province. After a three-week detention, the nuns were released without charges but are forbidden to leave mainland China and cannot return to Hong Kong. The Catholic Church has yet to publicly mention the arrests.
32. The outspoken senior Roman Catholic leader, 91-year-old Cardinal Joseph Zen, was arrested under the NSL for “colluding with foreign forces” for financially supporting jailed pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong through the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund in May 2022.
33. Members of churches have also become split over the political turmoil in Hong Kong. Approximately 40 members who were teachers and mentors at Tung Fook Church quit due to pressure to be silent on political matters.
Religious Institutions Raided
34. In December 2020, search warrants were executed against two branches of the Good Neighbour North District Church as the Hong Kong police raided the branches hours after HSBC froze the church’s accounts. Members of the church were known to frequently attend and promote peace at mass protests in Hong Kong.
35. One pastor in Hong Kong reported losing over 300 members out of fear of persecution by the Hong Kong authorities since the imposition of the NSL.
36. To preserve individuals’ access to practise their religious beliefs, the CFHK Foundation calls on member states of the United Nations to recommend the follow measures in relation to the HKSAR:
Repeal the NSL, which poses a danger to individuals who wish to freely express the religion of their choice.
Release all political prisoners including religious prisoners of conscience.
Allow individuals to freely practise the religion of their choice without repercussions.
Protect religious officials who travel between mainland China and Hong Kong to guarantee their safe haven in Hong Kong.
Stop authorising search warrants for religious buildings unless there is credible evidence for criminal activity.
 See Article 46, “National Security Law.”  Under Article 44 of the National Security Law, the designated judges are selected for a term of one year, and can be removed from the list if they make statements or take actions that “endanger national security.” In Wong, Kellogg, and Lai’s analysis, they raised serious concerns about judicial independence: “If the Chief Executive has the sole power to guide all NSL cases to a limited pool of judges, and also to exclude judges whom the executive branch feels is insufficiently sympathetic to the government’s views, members of the public may have doubts as to whether NSL defendants are able to obtain a fair hearing.” (Wong, Kellogg and Lai 10), https://www.law.georgetown.edu/law-asia/wp-content/uploads/sites/31/2021/06/HongKongNSLRightToFairTrial.pdf The HKSAR government has refused to make the list of designated judges public, claiming that it could create security risks for judges who have been named. See Wong, Kellogg and Lai 10.  Jimmy Lai was first arrested in August 2020. He has since been charged with foreign collusion under the National Security Law. Lai applied to engage Tim Owen, a UK legal practitioner, in his NSL case but was challenged by the government. After losing an appeal, the chief executive John Lee asked Beijing to intervene, delaying the trial. Soon afterwards, Beijing declared that courts needed approval from the chief executive to allow foreign lawyers on national security cases. Following that, Hong Kong passed an amendment in May 2023 to allow the chief executive to veto any foreign lawyers from working on cases brought under the NSL. See Guardian’s report for more detail on it, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2023/may/11/hong-kong-passes-law-to-limit-work-of-foreign-lawyers-amid-ongoing-jimmy-lai-case  In a press conference in October 2022, the Security Secretary Chris Tang announced numerous figures regarding jail. See Bloomberg’s report, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-11-11/hong-kong-jails-holding-record-number-of-people-awaiting-trial.  See Correctional Services Department Annual Review 2022, part 1(i), https://www.csd.gov.hk/english/news/news_pr/20230223.html.  This article from Reuters documents the crackdown on lawyers in Hong Kong. Incidents include receiving anonymous threats sent by text message and email, and Chinese “funeral money” at the office, GPS tracking devices placed under a car, ambushed by state-controlled media reporters, and personal defamation in the press, https://www.reuters.com/investigates/special-report/china-lawyers-crackdown-exodus/.  The HKSAR government attempted to influence the election for the Law Society’s governing council to rule out candidates who wanted to engage the Society in taking a stand on issues including freedom of speech and judicial independence. At a news conference, the then-Chief Executive Carrie Lam threatened to cut ties with the body if it got involved in politics, meaning the society would lose its role as part of the administration of justice. More than 30 articles and editorials attacking specific candidates were published in pro-Beijing media outlets in weeks leading up to the election. Three days before the election, one of the candidates dropped out from the race after receiving anonymous threats via WhatsApp. China’s top representative body in Hong Kong, the liaison office, accused Harris of unprofessional conduct, personal arrogance and ignorance. The office said the security law could not be challenged.  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