The UK's relations with Hong Kong: 30 years after the Joint Declaration - Foreign Affairs Contents

6  Basic rights and freedoms

Concerns about erosion of rights

68. The Joint Declaration pledged that the social and economic systems of Hong Kong, as well as its "life-style", would remain unchanged after its return to China. This included the preservation of rights and freedoms that did not apply to the same degree on the Chinese mainland, including:

    [Rights] of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief.[167]

These rights are further elaborated in Chapter III of the Basic Law. Along with the maintenance of the rule of law and judicial independence, the preservation of rights and freedoms is central to the premise and implementation of "one country, two systems".

69. The FCO's six-monthly reports have consistently concluded that these rights and freedoms remain intact and respected by the authorities. The reports have also detailed concerns raised by people in Hong Kong—occasionally shared by the FCO—about potential threats to those rights. The report covering January to June 2014 stated:

    Throughout the reporting period, the people of Hong Kong continued to exercise their basic rights and freedoms. In our last report we noted that concerns had been raised over threats to press freedoms and freedom of expression. These concerns continued to be raised throughout the current reporting period.[168]

The report covering July to December 2014 did not include a similar overarching statement, but said that the UK Government "will continue to press for the rights and freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law and Joint Declaration to be respected."[169]

70. We received a large number of submissions claiming that basic rights and freedoms in Hong Kong were being eroded. Although the submissions covered a wide range of issues, in general the two main areas of complaint were freedom of assembly and freedom of speech and the press.[170] The widespread public concern about the preservation of these freedoms is reflected in the structure of the six-monthly reports, almost all of which have included both a section on press freedom and a section detailing the marches and demonstrations that have taken place during the reporting period.

Freedom of assembly

71. Marches and demonstrations are frequent in Hong Kong. Major rallies are staged annually on several dates throughout the year, including New Year's Day, 1 May, 4 June (commemorating the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown), 1 July (the date of the handover), and 1 October (China's National Day). Many of these rallies draw crowds in the tens and sometimes hundreds of thousands, and usually include marches organised by both "pro-democratic" and "pro-Beijing" groups. There are also demonstrations on a regular basis relating to a range of additional issues. In 2013, for example, the FCO reported that in addition to the large annual demonstrations there was a strike and demonstration by the Union of Hong Kong Dock Workers, a march against the government's property market cooling measures, a series of rallies outside government offices protesting against a government decision on television broadcasting licenses, and a record number of people marching in the Pride parade to demand equal rights for sexual minorities.[171] Coupled with the more recent example of the Occupy Central campaign, during which demonstrators blocked several major thoroughfares for up to ten weeks, it is clear that Hong Kong's tradition of mass protest remains vibrant.


72. With the exception of a few incidents including the smashing of a glass wall on the LegCo building, the Occupy demonstrations were widely reported to be peaceful and orderly. However, we heard some disquieting evidence about the conduct of the police during the campaign, particularly as the Hong Kong police are generally known for their exemplary handling of large rallies. As the international media widely reported, on 28 September police fired tear gas canisters into the crowds in an attempt to disperse the demonstrators. Although the police quickly backed down after a public backlash, they were later reported in the press to have used pepper spray and batons against demonstrators who refused to leave during the clear-out of the major protest sites.[172] Democratic activist Avery Ng—who was arrested multiple times during the campaign—told us that he had been beaten by the police, and other demonstrators sent us video footage of police beating protesters.[173] We also heard that the police had turned a blind eye to violent attacks on protesters in the Mong Kok area, which activists claimed were carried out by Triad groups.[174]

73. Although close to 1,000 arrests were made during the course of the Occupy protests, the vast majority of people detained were released without charge. However, Avery Ng told us in December that the police were likely to build cases against protest leaders slowly, and would charge them at a later date.[175] Since January 2015 several of the major protest leaders, including the founders of Occupy Central and 18-year-old student leader Joshua Wong, have been summoned to police stations to be shown video clips and articles that the police say will be used to build a case against them.[176]

74. The day after the police fired tear gas at the demonstrators, the FCO released a statement insisting that it was important for Hong Kong to preserve the right to demonstrate and for people to exercise that right within the law.[177] On 2 October it issued a very similar press release which welcomed a statement by the Hong Kong police force that it would "exercise maximum tolerance".[178] The FCO's rhetoric was less urgent than that of the Deputy Prime Minister, who on 30 September said that he was "extremely concerned" about events in Hong Kong and requested an urgent meeting with the Chinese Ambassador.[179] In January 2015, after the campaign had come to an end, the FCO told us it considered the law enforcement response to Occupy Central to have been "proportionate" and that proper judicial process had been followed with respect to investigating the "small number of incidents [of police action] that do appear to have been disproportionate."[180] The six-monthly report for July to December 2014 further elaborated on this point in an unusually direct way, stating:

    HM Government's view is that the Hong Kong Police's use of tear gas was an unwelcome but uncharacteristic response at an early stage of the protests, and was not indicative of a wider pattern of behaviour. Following that incident, the Hong Kong Police generally approached the protests carefully and proportionately. There were other isolated incidents of concern but we welcome the Hong Kong authorities' commitment to investigate all complaints received.[181]

75. Freedom of assembly is a fundamental right guaranteed in the Joint Declaration. Although we recognise that the Occupy campaign brought considerable disruption to Hong Kong, the largely peaceful and orderly character of the protests should be commended. We were concerned by reports of police using excessive force, particularly when clearing the protest sites. The FCO should encourage the Hong Kong authorities to investigate and prosecute incidents of alleged police brutality in accordance with the law, and should closely monitor and report on these investigations in the six-monthly reports. It is also important that those who exercised their right to peaceful protest are not subsequently punished or put under undue pressure by the police and authorities. We call on the FCO to be vigilant in monitoring the future treatment of the protest leaders, to raise any concerns that may arise with the Hong Kong government, and to include details of any conversations with the Hong Kong government on this issue in the six-monthly reports.

Freedom of the press

76. The perceived erosion of press freedom in Hong Kong was a major and persistent theme in the evidence that we heard. The Hong Kong Journalists' Association (HKJA) told us that 2014 marked the "darkest moment of Hong Kong's press freedom", when Hong Kong fell to a record low of 61 on the annual ranking of global press freedom compiled by Reporters Without Borders.[182] In general, witnesses told us that although press freedom remains protected by law in Hong Kong, it has increasingly been undermined in practice.[183]

77. We were very concerned by reports of violence against journalists known for having critical stances toward Beijing. Legislator Emily Lau told us that there had been at least 12 to 15 incidents of serious violence against journalists in the past five to ten years, and noted that the failure of the Hong Kong authorities to solve many of these crimes sent a message that those who attacked journalists would not be punished.[184] In 2013, according to the HKJA, the owner of the newspaper am730, the publisher of iSunAffairs, and the chairman of Next Media were all also subject to violent attacks.[185] In February 2014, Kevin Lau, former Editor-in-chief of the daily Ming Pao, was nearly murdered in a brutal machete attack. A month later, two senior figures from the Hong Kong Morning News Media Group were beaten with metal bars, causing them to shelve plans for the launch of a new local newspaper.[186] These attacks prompted the Press Coalition Against Violence to organise a rally in March 2014, which was attended by several thousand people.[187] Witnesses from the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong told us that a climate was developing in which journalists who openly criticised China were being singled out for such attacks.[188] Similarly, student activist Hui Sin Tung said: "A common citizen like me cannot directly attribute such incidents to the political agenda or policy of the Chinese government, but we can feel the chill on the media from what we read in newspapers, see on television or browse on the internet."[189]

78. Several witnesses told us that self-censorship—decisions by media owners, editors or individual journalists to edit or avoid publishing material critical of Beijing—has become widespread in Hong Kong. The HKJA listed examples of interference by editors including the alteration of a column in the Hong Kong Economic Journal asking the government to investigate corruption in TV licensing, a last-minute change to a headline in Ming Pao relating to annual 1 July demonstrations, and the trimming of an article in the South China Morning Post on the suspicious death of a Tiananmen Square activist.[190] We also heard that journalists in the newsroom of the TVB television station circulated a petition protesting against heavy-handed editing of their coverage of Occupy Central, specifically relating to police mistreatment of journalists.[191] According to the HKJA, many journalists in Hong Kong have complained about last-minute removal of negative stories about the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, as well as blacklisting of academics considered to be "too liberal", but none would speak on the record about these issues for fear of losing their jobs.[192] Self-censorship is by nature a difficult allegation to prove and is thus a difficult phenomenon to counteract, but we agree with Jonathan Fenby, former editor of the South China Morning Post, who described it as potentially "very corrosive" to the overall media climate in Hong Kong.[193]

79. Commercial interests appear to be responsible for some of this alleged pressure on journalists and editors. This can be in the form of pressure from advertisers; for example, we heard that in 2014 major firms including HSBC, Standard Chartered, the Hang Seng Bank and the Bank of East Asia had pulled all advertising from the outspoken anti-Beijing Apple Daily newspaper.[194] It also derives from media owners. According to the HKJS, the vast majority of Hong Kong media owners have business interests in mainland China, and over half have been appointed to the National People's Congress or the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.[195] Several witnesses agreed that pressure from media owners was a major factor in pushing journalists to self-censor, and that this pressure had increased over the last 15 years along with China's economic power.[196] While we recognise that media owners exert influence on editorial content all over the world, this represents a special and worrying case. Given the close relationship between business and political interests on mainland China, the increasing influence of these interests in controlling Hong Kong's media could seriously undermine "one country, two systems".

80. The Hong Kong government has consistently condemned attacks on journalists, and in April 2014 Chief Executive C Y Leung insisted that his government was committed to maintaining press freedom as a "cornerstone of a free society".[197] However, the HKJA wrote that the Hong Kong government had used its power to issue or renew broadcasting licences as a way to avoid diversifying the media market, and in one case, allegedly, to force the resignation of a radio show host with outspoken anti-Beijing views.[198] Since the end of the Occupy movement, there has also been some discussion in Hong Kong and Beijing about renewing the attempt to fulfil the provisions of Article 23 of the Basic Law, which requires Hong Kong SAR to enact legislation to prohibit "any act of treason, secession, sedition [or] subversion" against the Chinese Government.[199] Any attempt to re-introduce this legislation would constitute a grave threat to freedom of expression in Hong Kong, and we welcome reports that Chief Executive C Y Leung has no plans to enact Article 23 legislation during his current term of office.[200]


81. The FCO has consistently recorded allegations and debates about the deterioration of press freedom in the six-monthly reports, although it has not always expressed concern of its own. Both of the reports for 2012 stated that the UK Government was "concerned" about the alleged deterioration in press freedom, but the language in subsequent reports has sometimes been less direct, saying that the UK "takes seriously" and "takes note of" the concerns expressed by people in Hong Kong. President of the Foreign Correspondents Club Jitendra Joshi was somewhat critical of the tone of the reports, saying that some journalists felt the UK was not speaking out forcefully enough in defence of press freedom.[201] However, Jonathan Fenby took a more sympathetic view of the FCO's reporting, in recognition of the difficulty inherent in proving allegations of self-censorship.[202] The Minister told us that the FCO is indeed "very concerned" about reports that Hong Kong's press freedom is under threat.[203] He said that he had raised those concerns with the head of the Hong Kong and Macao Office in Beijing, and would continue to raise them with the Hong Kong government.[204] This was further reflected in the most recent six-monthly report for July to December 2014, which included a substantial section on perceived threats to press freedom and highlighted it as "the most prominent" area of concern for the FCO.[205] We welcome the FCO's strong statements on the UK Government's commitment to press freedom in Hong Kong, but remain very concerned about the ongoing erosion of this fundamental right. A free press is essential to the functioning of a free society and a crucial pillar upholding Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy.

82. We recommend that the FCO continue to raise the issue of press freedom privately with the Hong Kong authorities and the Chinese government, making clear that the UK takes press freedom seriously as a right guaranteed by the Joint Declaration. We also recommend that the FCO express its concerns more robustly in the six-monthly reports and in public statements, to support journalists in Hong Kong who may face censorship, losing their jobs and even violent attacks for attempting to exercise their rights under the Basic Law, and to ensure a climate of impunity does not evolve.

167   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, para 3.5 Back

168   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Six-monthly Report on Hong Kong: 1 January to 30 June 2014, July 2014, p 12 Back

169   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Six-monthly Report on Hong Kong: 1 July to 31 December 2014, February 2015, p 28 Back

170   For example, Paul Phillips (HNG 0491) para II.e; Patrick Muook Bill Chow (HNG 0389) paras 3-10; Chan Sheung Man (HNG 0487) paras 5-6; Asia Public Affairs and Social Services Society, University of Manchester (HNG 0549) paras 7-12; Human Rights Watch (HNG 0741) Summary and paras 2-4; Mavis Lung (and 177 others in similar petition) (HNG 0075) para II.3; Yiu Shing Ching (and 290 others in similar petition) (HNG 0296) paras 17-33; Kyle Chan (and 78 others in similar petition) (HNG 0498) para 2 Back

171   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Six-monthly Report on Hong Kong: 1 January to 30 June 2013, July 2013, p 12; Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Six-monthly Report on Hong Kong: 1 June to 31 December 2013, February 2014, p 11 Back

172   Chris Lau, Ernest Kao, Timmy Sung and Samuel Chan, "Police fire pepper spray as 80 protesters arrested after Mong Kok clearance", South China Morning Post, 25 November 2014 Back

173   Qq126, 247-50 Back

174   Q120; Patrick Muook Bill Chow (HNG 0389) para 6; Tom Phillips, "'Triads' behind spike in Hong Kong protest violence, activist claims", The Telegraph, 19 October 2014 Back

175   Q249 Back

176   For example, Joyce Ng, "Police evidence against Occupy Central leaders found amusing", South China Morning Post, 25 January 2015 Back

177   "Foreign Office monitoring events in Hong Kong", Foreign and Commonwealth Office press release, 29 September 2014 Back

178   "Foreign Office expresses concern about Hong Kong and welcomes offer of talks", Foreign and Commonwealth Office press release, 2 October 2014 Back

179   "Deputy Prime Minister requests urgent meeting with Chinese Ambassador", Deputy Prime Minister's Office press release, 30 September 2014 Back

180   Q357 Back

181   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Six-monthly Report on Hong Kong: 1 July to 31 December 2014, February 2015, p 11 Back

182   Hong Kong Journalists Association (HNG 0629) para 4 Back

183   Paul Phillips (HNG 0491) para II.e; The Professional Commons (HNG 0727) para 5; Kyle Chan (and 78 others in similar petition) (HNG 0498) para 2; Human Rights Watch (HNG 0741) Summary; Hong Kong 2020 (HNG 0490) para 1.1 Back

184   Q202 Back

185   Hong Kong Journalists Association (HNG 0629) paras 19-24 Back

186   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Six-monthly Report on Hong Kong: 1 January to 30 June 2014, July 2014, p 12 Back

187   Hong Kong Journalists Association (HNG 0629) para 24; Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Six-monthly Report on Hong Kong: 1 January to 30 June 2014, July 2014, p 13. The HKJA put the number of people attending the rally at 13,000, but the FCO noted that the police had put the figure at 8,600. Back

188   Q137 Back

189   Q122 Back

190   Hong Kong Journalists Association (HNG 0629) para 17 Back

191   Q137 Back

192   Hong Kong Journalists Association (HNG 0629) para 18 Back

193   Q92 Back

194   Hong Kong Journalists Association (HNG 0629) para 27; Yiu Shing Ching (and 290 others in similar petition) (HNG 0296) para 33; Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Six-monthly Report on Hong Kong: 1 January to 30 June 2014, July 2014, p 13 Back

195   Hong Kong Journalists Association (HNG 0629) para 8 Back

196   Qq91, 139 Back

197   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Six-monthly Report on Hong Kong: 1 January to 30 June 2014, July 2014, p 13 Back

198   Hong Kong Journalists Association (HNG 0629) paras 28-30 Back

199   The Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, Chapter II, Article 23. Legislation to enact Article 23 was introduced in 2002, but failed after prompting mass protests which led ultimately to the resignation of Chief Executive C H Tung. The FCO also expressed serious concerns about the legislation, amidst concerns that it would have infringed on the right to freedom of speech and of the press. Back

200   Tong Cheung, Peter So and Stuart Lau, "National security laws have place in Hong Kong, says former Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa", South China Morning Post, 20 January 2015 Back

201   Q146 Back

202   Q92 Back

203   Q359 Back

204   Qq358-359 Back

205   Foreign and Commonwealth Office, The Six-monthly Report on Hong Kong: 1 July to 31 December 2014, February 2015, p 28 Back

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Prepared 6 March 2015