Edward Kendall hears first hand from Benedict Rogers, the founder of Hong Kong Watch, about the worrying changes taking place in the former British colony.
Why did you start Hong Kong Watch?
I lived in Hong Kong for the first five years after the handover from 1997 to 2002 working there as a journalist. When I left in 2002 I thought that things in Hong Kong were generally okay – ‘one country; two systems’ was working well. I wasn’t particularly worried about Hong Kong, and I was focused on human rights issues in other parts of the region.
But when the Umbrella Movement happened in Hong Kong in 2014, I realised something significant was changing. I started in my spare time to speak out for Hong Kong, wrote articles, talked to members of parliament, and I ended up hosting, on several different occasions, visits by leading pro-democracy campaigners like Nathan Law, Joshua Wong and Anson Chan.
And then there came a point in 2017 when a few things came together. Firstly, when Anson Chan came to London I assumed she had her own program of meetings arranged. But in fact, she didn’t have any meetings arranged and I offered at fairly short notice to arrange some key meetings which I think she appreciated. But I thought to myself, this isn’t really sustainable to rely on one individual in his spare time. And it was good fortune that on all three occasions with those visits I was in London, but I often travelled so I could easily have not been in London.
So I thought for that reason we need an organisation to give people a platform and to advocate for Hong Kong.
But I also realised that the level of awareness among members of Parliament, the media and the public, about what was happening in Hong Kong was shockingly low.
And so again, I thought we needed an organisation to inform and educate and advocate.
The idea really crystallised in the lead up to the sentencing of Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow in August 2017 on charges of participating in an unlawful assembly in 2014, part of the pro-democracy protests taking place that year. I often say Hong Kong Watch was conceived in a traffic jam in Surabaya, because I happened to be in Indonesia at the time. And if you know Indonesian traffic jams, you know they give you a lot of time to think because they’re very long. And so I was in the back of a taxi stuck in this traffic jam thinking about Joshua and Nathan and Alex. It was during their trial, but a few days before their sentencing.
I thought, things are getting worse and worse in Hong Kong, there’s a real need for an organisation. And so from the taxi I messaged a couple of other friends who I’d already been talking vaguely with about doing something. I said, why don’t we start an organisation? That’s how Hong Kong Watch began.
At what point did you notice that the situation in Hong Kong was deteriorating?
The Umbrella Movement was probably the first red flag for me. And although the police brutality was nothing like what it was in 2019, there was tear gas and peaceful protesters were arrested. So that was probably the first warning sign. And then the things that followed, the disqualification of legislators and various other things, made me even more aware of how serious the situation was becoming.
Of course, that was almost nothing compared to what’s happened in the last couple of years. But at the time it was a sign of things to come. But yes, I think the imprisonment of Joshua, Nathan, and Alex was the final red flag for me that I realised something was going very badly wrong.
What is the situation in Hong Kong with regards to press freedom?
In the first five years after the handover, when I worked as a journalist in Hong Kong, I would say, generally press freedom was pretty strong and pretty intact. But I did see examples, more of self-censorship than Beijing actually intervening. And so I saw some early warning signs of what might be to come. But I think, really, it’s only been since the National Security Law that we’ve seen this very dramatic crackdown.
There was harassment of journalists in the 2019 protests. The police treated journalists pretty badly, there were threats to journalists. But in terms of the kind of all-out comprehensive crackdown, that’s really been since the National Security Law was passed in June 2020. In terms of why they’ve used the National Security Law in some cases, and the old colonial laws in other cases, I’m not entirely sure.
Why is Hong Kong’s national security law so controversial?
I would say the national security law is the most draconian, vaguely defined, deeply repressive law I’ve ever seen.
I mean, to start with in terms of what’s wrong with the law itself, one of the problems is the categories of collusion with foreign political entities and secession are very poorly defined in the law. All our societies have laws to deal with real terrorism or real secession, but what we’re talking about in Hong Kong is not counterterrorism. It’s silencing dissent and it’s used, really, to dismantle all of Hong Kong’s freedoms.
We’ve seen since the imposition of the National Security Law, the total dismantling of press freedom, the closure of Apple Daily, Stand News and others, arrests of former legislators and peaceful, mainstream democrats – not even those who might reasonably be accused of radical or violent attacks, but really moderate mainstream people like Jimmy Lai, and that’s deeply concerning.
I think there are two other things that are also very problematic about it. The first is that there’s actually an extraterritorial component to the National Security Law, which, in effect, says it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Hong Konger or not, or whether you are in Hong Kong or not. Something you do anywhere in the world could be deemed to be a violation of the National Security Law. So I often say that I’m breaching National Security Law, I think, every day sitting here in London, by speaking out on these issues.
Now, it’s unlikely that they will be able to really reach me here in London, but it does mean that I definitely can never go to Hong Kong and I wouldn’t even transit in Hong Kong. On an even more serious level, it means that people who do have the desire to go back to Hong Kong and particularly Hong Kongers themselves, need to really think carefully about whether they speak out outside Hong Kong because that could be held against them when they do go back.
The other thing that is also outrageous about it is the way it was introduced, instead of it being taken through Hong Kong’s legislative council and giving Hong Kong people a say in what the legislation should look like, it was drafted secretly. It seems that even Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong chief executive, didn’t know until the law was announced what it contained. It was drafted by the National People’s Congress in Beijing, fast-tracked through very rapidly within just a few weeks, and then suddenly imposed. And it was only when it was announced that the content was known. So there was no transparency, no consultation at all.
Is Hong Kong’s judiciary still independent?
I think it’s definitely coming under ever-increasing pressure. If you look at the cases over the past year or so it suggests that to a large extent it has already buckled. And I think there are a number of reasons for that.
Firstly, I think Beijing has made it very clear that it wants convictions at once. I don’t think there’s been a single case of any of the politically motivated arrests and prosecutions not resulting in a conviction and a prison term.
Bail, which used to be an absolute norm in the Hong Kong judicial system, is now being refused for almost all of the political arrestees in national security law cases. It’s the chief executive Carrie Lam, with Beijing’s input, who chooses the judges to sit in national security law cases, and it’s pretty clear that she’s choosing judges who will do the regime’s bidding. So although I don’t doubt that there are still good and honourable people in the judicial system, trying their best to hold the line, I think the record of the last year or two suggests that it’s under immense pressure.
I don’t think we can really say it’s an independent judiciary anymore, especially in political cases. I think if you look at criminal cases or commercial disputes, that’s probably a different matter.
The recent election, which took place in December, could it really be called a democratic election?
I don’t see how in any way it could be democratic when there are some suggestions of votes being given to people in mainland China. And possibly some irregularities on top of that. So no, I think it was a total sham. And I think the Hong Kong people made that clear by the fact that it was the lowest turnout, I believe, since the handover, and a very different story from the district council elections in 2019, which had one of the highest turnouts and in which the pro-democracy camp swept the board. So I think the fact that Hong Kong people didn’t turn out to vote is a sign that they didn’t think it was democratic.
Is it true that it is a criminal offence in Hong Kong to encourage people to boycott the election or spoil their ballot?
Yes, absolutely. One of the most extraordinary things was that they said that to encourage people to either spoil their ballot paper or to boycott the elections was a criminal offence. And the Hong Kong government even wrote to both the Wall Street Journal and the Sunday Times, who had published editorials talking about spoiling ballot papers or boycotting the vote, and the Hong Kong government actually sent them threatening letters. So it was extraordinary that they went to those lengths.
What is the end goal for Hong Kong Watch? How do you envision a better Hong Kong in a better world?
When we started Hong Kong Watch the situation was very different from how it is today. And we were very much focused in the first few years on trying to protect ‘one country; two systems’ – trying to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedom and human rights. And we did that through informing people and through advocating various measures that the international community should take in response to the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy.
The other thing I should say is that we also advocated from the very beginning for the British government to strengthen the opportunities and the rights for Hong Kongers to hold British nationality overseas, the BNO status. And I think we can justifiably say that we played a role in the British government offering a very generous and very welcoming scheme to enable them to come to the UK and to build a new life here – the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary announced that on the very day that the National Security Law came into force.
We’ve been quite focused since then on advocating for change to address some of the weaknesses of the BNO scheme (although it is a very welcome scheme) and also to address questions around welcome and integration for Hong Kongers who are coming to the UK.
But looking ahead, to answer your question, what can we do going forward and how can we see Hong Kong change?
I think it’s undeniable that change in Hong Kong can only come through change in Beijing, and that requires change in the international community’s response to Beijing.
But it’s very hard to see change in Hong Kong happening unless Beijing decides to do things differently. And it’s very hard to see that happening under Xi Jinping.
But I do think that the international community needs to make it clear to the regime in Beijing that there are consequences for what they’ve done. If they’re allowed to think they can get away with destroying Hong Kong’s freedoms, then that will just embolden them to be even more repressive in Hong Kong, but also even more aggressive towards Taiwan and ultimately our own freedoms. I think it’s in our interest to make sure that there are consequences for Beijing’s actions; that means sanctions, targeted sanctions against individuals and entities in Beijing, and in the Hong Kong government, who are responsible for doing what they’ve done to Hong Kong.
It also means strengthening lifelines for people to get out of Hong Kong if they need to: addressing the needs of young activists who are in real danger in Hong Kong, but aren’t eligible for the BNO scheme. We’ve been very active, both with our own government, but also with Canada and Australia, and the United States, in pushing for opportunities along those lines.
I think it’s really important not to lose hope. It will be very easy to think, well, Hong Kong’s freedoms are dead, and there’s nothing we can do, and we just give up, but that would be disastrous, that would just ensure that Hong Kong never recovers its freedoms. We need to keep active, we need to keep informing people. We need to increase the pressure on Beijing and for the international community to really change its relationship with the regime in Beijing.
Ultimately, dictatorships don’t last forever and I believe at some point change will come. Although I can’t put a timeframe on that. But we probably need to also be prepared for things to get darker still.
Is there anything in particular that you think the UK government should be doing but aren’t doing?
Yes, I think so. The BNO scheme, which as I say is very welcome and I applaud the government for doing it, is actually the only policy response they have made in response to the dismantling of Hong Kong freedoms. I don’t think that is enough, because although the BNO scheme offers a much needed lifeline to Hong Kongers who need to get out of Hong Kong, it does nothing to change the situation on the ground. Besides the BNO scheme the only thing that the government has done is issue statements, but words alone are not going to change Beijing.
I think the UK needs to look at sanctions. I think the other thing the UK should be looking at is the whole question of investment in China. Quite a lot of major pension funds are invested in Chinese companies that are complicit with very serious human rights violations, some of them complicit with what’s happening to the Uighurs in Xinjiang, then there’s the role of HSBC in terms of going along with the dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms. I think we should be really looking at divestment; certainly divestment from companies that are clearly very far from ethical and are complicit with grave human rights violations.
What can people here do, for instance, that can help change Hong Kong for the better or at least put pressure on institutions to make these changes?
People can certainly raise these issues regularly with members of Parliament. There’s a real danger in the political world and the media world that an issue comes alive for a period of time, but then other issues come along and it falls off the agenda. When we first started in 2017, there were very few members of Parliament that understood and were engaged with Hong Kong and that’s why we started Hong Kong Watch. I would say because of the protests in 2019 and partly because of our own advocacy as well, and then the National Security Law, and everything that’s followed through 2019, 2020, and to some extent 2021, attention in Parliament has been much higher, but there is a danger that MPs will move on to other things.
So keeping your MP informed, keeping up the pressure on your MP to speak out is really important.
As more and more Hong Kongers are coming to the UK, I would encourage people to look out for the Hong Kongers in their local community and find ways to welcome them, befriend them, help them settle down, collaborate with them.
And there are quite a number of initiatives that have emerged over the last year or two. There’s a whole network of churches around the country that are now set up and committed to helping welcome Hong Kongers. But there are secular initiatives as well. So I would encourage people to think about how they can get involved in welcoming Hong Kongers to the UK.
What is your vision of a perfect Hong Kong?
I think a perfect Hong Kong would be a Hong Kong that maintains and strengthens its vibrant, entrepreneurial, creative, open spirit, and combines that with universal suffrage and democracy, respect for human rights, and the restoration of the rule of law. So in a sense, Hong Kong as it was at the time of the handover, but strengthened by full democracy because the one thing I think that we should all acknowledge is that British colonial rule did not give Hong Kong democracy, but it did give it the institutions of democracy – the rule of law, free press, human rights, and a semi-elected legislature.
I think we can build on that and strengthen it by full democracy with universal suffrage. That’s what the majority of Hong Kongers want. And I think that’s what they deserve. It’s also what the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s mini-constitution) provides for. So a perfect Hong Kong would be a Hong Kong where China lives by its promises and respects the will of the Hong Kong people.
This is a slightly edited transcript of Ben’s interview by Edward. You can listen to the interview here.
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