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The Erosion of Freedom of Speech in Hong Kong, the Erosion of Freedom of Speech in the UK

Updated: Jul 26, 2023

This week's blog is authored by Dr Jane Richards, Law Lecturer at the University of Leeds.


As a human rights expert who lived through the regime change in Hong Kong, I can attest that there is no part of life that in Hong Kong that is ungoverned by its National Security Law. The extension of the National Security Law has already begun to curtail free speech in this country; diversity of opinions are being quashed, penalties are imposed for non-compliance, and there are real risks of expressing dissent even outside of Hong Kong and China. In Britain, I have witnessed first-hand self-censorship because of the risks of speaking out. Democratic freedoms and the rule of law are being eroded globally, in line with China’s own interests.


I will begin by providing a brief example—the story of a song—to illustrate the broader, insidious nature of China’s attack on global human rights norms, and to show how liberal democracies like the UK can respond.


In mid-2019, some months into the anti-extradition protests, an anonymous composer wrote and recorded a protest anthem, Glory to Hong Kong. Its lyrics are largely on a par with Do You Hear the People Sing. Glory to Hong Kong became ubiquitous. It was sung in shopping malls and at protests by elderly, students, white collar workers on their lunchbreak, and families. I joined in many times with my three children and friends. Singing Glory to Hong Kong was a peaceful way that 100s and occasionally 1000s, came together in an expression of non-violence and unity.


In June 2020, Beijing unilaterally imposed the National Security Law on Hong Kong. Carrie Lam, then Hong Kong’s top official, claimed the law would only target “an extremely small minority of people” while protecting the basic rights and freedoms of the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong residents. That has not been the case. As of May, some estimates, including those cited in the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, posit there being over 1000 political prisoners in Hong Kong. The conviction rate so far, under the NSL is 100% - even higher than in the Mainland. Many more face intimidation and persecution.


Arrests have included elderly folk busking. I remember walking through a bus station in Hong Kong with my children and seeing an old man playing Glory to Hong Kong on his kazoo. I reiterated to them how brave he was. It gave me goosebumps to think that playing a melody could attract a charge of sedition, potentially warranting jail time.


Last November, at a Rugby 7s final in South Korea, Glory to Hong Kong was played instead of China’s National Anthem, March of the Volunteers. The Hong Kong government demanded an official apology. The Hong Kong Police’s Organised Crime and Triad Bureau opened an investigation, and the Asia Rugby President flew to Hong Kong to apologise. After several more similar incidents at international sporting matches, in March of this year, the government introduced stringent new guidelines, shifting the onus to athletes, who now will come under severe censure if the correct anthem is not played. Authoritarians hate embarrassment, and they will curtail liberties wholesale to avoid it.


Earlier this month, the Hong Kong Department of Justice applied for a court injunction to entirely ban the song, including on the internet. For reasons unclear, the case is currently adjourned. In the meantime, the Hong Kong government has asked Google to remove Glory to Hong Kong from its search results globally.


But this isn’t a story just about a song. The banning of a song and slogan demonstrates the reach of the Hong Kong’s National Security Law and attempts by the Hong Kong government to repress freedom of speech globally. Chinese Communist Party ideology is shaping international discourse by eliminating plurality of ideas and opinion. The UK must take concrete actions to prevent the erosion of global human rights norms.


The story of this song fits into broader attempts by China to reshape human rights norms in line with Chinese Communist Party ideology. China has demanded apologies from international organisations for causing offence, and these organisations have kowtowed. These include the NBA and some players, Versace, Givenchy, and Coach, American Airlines, Delta Airlines, United Airlines, and JW Marriot. Even South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone were asked to apologise for causing offence.


Liberal democracies like the UK must examine points of leverage to make it more difficult for authoritarians to make such demands on multinationals, and more costly for companies to comply. The UK must seek to reduce its reliance on China as a trading and energy partner. This is being done abroad. Germany is limiting investment in China and taking measures to diversify business interests across Asia. A bloc of 19 EU member states are seeking to reduce pharmaceutical imports, and the EU has announced a strategy to reduce its dependence on other strategic areas, such as technology. Australia has significantly diversified its trade away from China in the past 18 months. This is not just an economic issue. It is a human rights issue. Economic strategy must be informed by values of democracy, good governance and human rights.


The erosion of free speech is not limited to multinationals, but is happening on British soil.


I have witnessed censorship of Hong Kong issues in the UK first hand. Earlier this year, a former Legislative Council member from Hong Kong was to speak at my University in the UK. For their safety, the talk was kept all but secret, the guest list limited to around a dozen trusted guests, and the meeting moved off campus. I even questioned whether I should raise this example today, for fear of the risks associated to the individual and their family.


This is coupled with the alarming spread of CCP ideology by Confucius Institutes on University and School Campuses.


Last October, a Hong Kong protestor was dragged into the Chinese Consulate in Manchester and severely beaten by a consular official. Two weeks ago in Southampton, Hong Kong demonstrators were beaten by a group of Chinese activists.


The UK must take steps to seek to eliminate censorship, and to ensure the safety of those who speak out. Like peer nations, the UK must remove Confucius Institutes from campuses. Britain must respond with the full force of the criminal law to breaches of diplomatic rules, and to violence directed at those exercising the right to free speech. While the UK has created pathways for BNO passport holders, these pathways must be expanded to make available safe routes for a much broader range of Hong Kong dissidents, who are at risk of persecution - not just those with historical immigration links to Britain. Like the US, and like calls being made in the European Parliament, Britain must introduce targeted sanctions against those who violate human rights. This is a matter of protecting free speech on British soil, and protecting global human rights norms.


The last point that I want to make is this.


My own safety is at risk if I ever try to travel back to Hong Kong. My freedom of movement and association is curtailed by exercising my freedoms outside Hong Kong and China. My son, Henry, is 11 and travels back to Hong Kong regularly to visit his dad who still lives there. If he was to get sick and need to go to hospital, I would have to make the choice between my own personal safety, and my role as a mother. How do I choose between my son and the risk of being arrested and detained indefinitely? It fills me with dread every time Henry gets on that plane, knowing that if something goes wrong, there is a strong chance I cannot get to him.


There is no doubt that China has breached its obligations under international human rights law both to the people of Hong Kong, and also more broadly. The erosion of freedom of speech, in line with China’s own interests should be cause for alarm. Britain must take holistic, concrete action. The solution must be multi-faceted. This is a matter not just for the people of Hong Kong. It is matter for all people in Britain and across the globe. This is a matter of protecting free speech and human rights everywhere.

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