Beijing’s encroachment on civil liberties in Hong Kong is reflected in Beijing’s unilateral interpretation of the Basic Law and the missing bookseller case, US-backed Freedom House said in its Freedom in the World 2017 report released on Tuesday.

The report saw Hong Kong continue a downward trend in terms of freedoms due to growing political and economic pressure from mainland China. It listed Hong Kong as “partly free” – the same as last year – but gave the territory an aggregate score of 61 out 100, down by two points from last year. A score of zero means the country is the least free.

freedom house 2017

Other ratings remained the same as last year: Hong Kong’s political rights and civil liberties scored five and two respectively. A score of seven means the least freedom.

Localist camp

The report noted that Beijing unilaterally interpreted the Basic Law “in an apparent bid to exclude pro-independence and pro-democracy lawmakers” from the legislature. It considered the ruling – handed down pending a court’s decision over the legislature’s oath row and without the Hong Kong government’s request – to be one of the key developments that affected Hong Kong political rights last year.

Localists also “faced major obstacles” to political participation from Hong Kong authorities, the report said. The obstacles included the government’s refusal to register a “newly formed localist party” and invalidation of the nominations of six localist candidates during last year’s Legislative Council election.

Missing booksellers

Freedom House flagged the missing booksellers case as a worrying sign that Hong Kong residents are vulnerable to punishment in China’s “politically controlled justice system for actions taken at home.” It said the case raised concerns about civil liberties and the rule of law in Hong Kong.

lam wing kee bookseller
Lam Wing-kee. Photo: HKFP.

Five Hong Kong booksellers associated with Causeway Bay Books – known for selling political gossip titles banned in China – went missing in 2015 and resurfaced last year. One of them, Lam Wing-kee, claimed he was kidnapped by a “central special unit” in China, and that a TV “confession” he gave was scripted and orchestrated.

The report also mentioned pro-Beijing pressure on press freedom and academic administration as a factor of Hong Kong’s freedom rating.

China and Taiwan

Meanwhile, China has been given an aggregated score 15 and listed as “not free” in the report. It received a full score for political rights, meaning the least free. The report warned that Chinese President Xi Jinping is consolidating personal power “to a degree not seen in China for decades” and cultivating nationalism as a pillar of legitimacy.

Taiwan, on the other hand, is listed as a “free” country with an aggregated score of 91. Both of its civil liberties and political rights are given the score of one, meaning the most free. It attributed the improvement in civil liberties to demonstrations of media independence and academic freedom in recent years, including in media coverage of the 2016 presidential elections.

Green: Free; Yellow: Partly free; Blue: Not free.Photo:
Green: Free; Yellow: Partly free; Blue: Not free.Photo:

Of the 195 countries assessed in the report, 45 percent were rated “free,” 30 percent were rated “partly free” and 25 percent were rated “not free.” Freedom House expressed concerns that populist and nationalist forces are on the rise in democratic states, which dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks in political rights and civil liberties last year.

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.