Introduction: The Current State of the Human Rights Situation in Hong Kong
Since the enactment of the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (National Security Law) in 2020, the human rights situation in Hong Kong has rapidly worsened. In 2021 in particular, the Hong Kong authorities have clamped down on almost all pro-democracy organizations involved in peaceful and legal activities, in an effort by the authorities to destroy them. The specific actions taken by Hong Kong authorities include the mass arrest of pro-democracy members of (and candidates for) the Legislative Council (January), widespread deterioration of the election system (May), the mass arrest of individuals associated with the anti-government newspaper Apple Daily and its discontinuation (June), the dissolution of the Civil Human Rights Front, which held large-scale demonstrations every year on July 1 (August), and the dissolution of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organized activities in memory of the Tiananmen Square Protest and Massacre (September).
Countries in Europe and the United States (US) have issued strong statements in response. They claim that China, which had promised to maintain the original “one country, two systems” status quo unchanged for a period of 50 years, has unilaterally changed the circumstances in Hong Kong in the 24th year after its return to China. At the same time, they also claim that China broke the promise it made to the world in the Joint Declaration of the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the People’s Republic of China on the Question of Hong Kong (Sino-British Joint Declaration).
Still, the sanctions against China, which were implemented by European countries and the US in response, have not been fully effective in improving the human rights situation. First, the sanctions implemented by the US are too weak. The sanctions that have already been implemented include those that target the personal finances of the leaders of the governments in China and Hong Kong, as well as those that require “Made in China” to be displayed on products exported from Hong Kong that are bound for the United States. Thus, they do not strike a major blow against the Chinese government, and these sanctions have not been successful in stopping the oppression.
By the same token, however, more severe sanctions cannot be utilized because they are too strong. China depends upon Hong Kong to supply it with foreign currency; thus, financial sanctions would deal the Chinese economy a major blow. However, financial sanctions are known as “the nuclear option,” as their implementation would have a serious effect on the world economy and may cause serious damage to the economies of Japan and the US as well.
In the case of Japan, action regarding Hong Kong has been limited to oral protests, and sanctions have not even been prepared. In the wake of the enactment of the National Security Law, an alliance of Diet members who aim to enact a Japanese version of the Magnitsky Act was created. Prime Minister Kishida appointed a member of the House of Representatives Nakatani Gen, who is a member of the abovementioned Diet Member alliance, to the position of Special Advisor to the Prime Minister in charge of International Human Rights. However, it is impossible to be optimistic about whether legal sanctions will develop further. It is mainly the opposition parties in Japan that have taken a hardline stance against China over the Hong Kong issue, and the Japanese Communist Party has been the most critical of China. The Komeito party, which is part of the ruling coalition, has adopted a position emphasizing friendship between Japan and China.
At the same time, however, sanctions have not been entirely ineffective. The Chinese government has enacted the Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law and it did begin procedures required to apply this law to Hong Kong. However, the August 2021 Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress postponed coming to a final decision on this law. The financial world in Hong Kong made a forceful case to the Chinese government leadership regarding the negative effects that the Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law could have on Hong Kong in an effort to get the government to change its policy. In other words, the financial world in Hong Kong is fearful of US sanctions.
As long as the Xi Jinping administration remains in power, one cannot expect dramatic improvement in the human rights situation in Hong Kong in the short term. In order to improve the human rights situation in Hong Kong, the international community must take a mid- to long-term view and provide various types of support that will promote the democratization of Hong Kong.
Currently, a large number of political exiles and emigrants have escaped from Hong Kong, although Japan and the US have been less eager to accept them than the United Kingdom and Canada. Despite this, however, accepting emigrants from Hong Kong who have language skills, a variety of specialized knowledge, and a certain degree of economic power would bring significant economic merits to the host country. In addition, emigrants from Hong Kong pose little security threat in forms such as terrorism and other violent crimes, and, by settling abroad as new immigrants, they can shift the values of the Chinese community in the host country in a more liberal direction. This would facilitate resistance to the infiltration of “sharp power” in the form of political activities engaged in at universities and other locations by the Chinese from mainland China, which has been a source of concern in recent years for Australia and other countries. These political and security benefits that are brought to the host nation by emigrants from Hong Kong need to be recognized.
The current Hong Kong government is a puppet of the Chinese government, and, as such, it does not support the protection of the unique culture and values of Hong Kong. In order to fill this void, Japan, the US, and others should support domestic communities of people from Hong Kong through private organizations and continue to voice their demand for the democratization of Hong Kong.
Control of information in Hong Kong is advancing at a rapid pace, but people in Hong Kong do not easily believe in government propaganda, given their longstanding international perspective. The citizens of Hong Kong are likely to continue demanding uncensored information about Hong Kong from abroad. The international community should reinforce research and reporting about Hong Kong in their own countries by, for example, welcoming researchers and journalists from Hong Kong, and it should continue to utilize the internet and other forums to communicate the resulting knowledge and information to Hong Kong.
The situation in Hong Kong is a manifestation of the Chinese will to decisively change the status quo by force. The international community needs to recognize that this is also their own problem as much as it is a problem for Hong Kong.