By William Nee

News from Hong Kong on Monday again drew attention to the alarming deterioration of human rights there – and gave the international community a masterclass in the Chinese government’s insidious “double speak.”

In one breath, the United Nations is implicitly viewed as a potentially harmful foreign force with a negative impact on Hong Kong’s stability. In the next breath, the United Nations is portrayed as a pillar of the international order that must be resolutely “safeguarded” to maintain world peace.

Xi Jinping addressing the General Assembly at the United Nations in September. Photo: Eskinder Debebe/UN

According to an HKFP report this week, members of the Civil Human Rights Front, an umbrella group which organised many of the pro-democracy protests in 2019, were being questioned by police – and asked to explain why the Front signed a joint petition asking the United Nations to urge the Beijing and Hong Kong government to improve human rights protections. The organisation was also given until Wednesday to provide the police with information about its “funding sources, expenses and related bank accounts, as well as its reasons for not registering with the government.”

Just days before, at the Boao Forum, Chinese President Xi Jinping laid down his vision for an international order. “We need to safeguard the UN-centred international system, preserve the international order underpinned by international law…” Vocally supporting a UN-centred system, he emphasised that it should be based on “cooperation” and follow the “principles of extensive consultation…” not confrontation or “meddling in others’ internal affairs.”

Especially in the Trump era, Xi repeatedly portrayed China as a resolute defender of multilateralism, cooperation and the international order, with the UN “at its core.”

In an era of climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, and other global governance challenges, the world needs more dialogue and cooperation. Yet, the UN is also tasked with dealing with allegations of human rights violations in any part of the world and monitoring states’ compliance with their treaty obligations, welcoming interaction with civil society.

Xi Jinping. File photo: World Economic Forum via Flickr.

Monitoring compliance is inherently inquisitive and UN mechanisms, by design, must assess the domestic compliance of individual counties.

What if civil society is intimidated and banned from engaging with and cooperating with the UN human rights agencies? These agencies then are rendered useless.

In the context of mainland China, unfortunately, we know that authorities will do almost anything to prevent NGOs and rights defenders from interacting with UN human rights mechanisms. Take the egregious case of activist Cao Shunli. Chinese police detained her in September 2013 at Beijing Capital International Airport to prevent her from travelling to engage with United Nations mechanisms in Geneva.

Cao was a victim of enforced disappearance for five weeks until Beijing police confirmed she had been criminally detained. She was subsequently denied adequate medical treatment and release on medical bail despite her worsening health, which culminated in her death in police custody in March 2014.

The case of Cao Shunli is not an outlier. The UN publishes an annual report that documents cases of harassment and reprisals by governments against human rights defenders who have tried to interact with UN bodies, and there are numerous cases involving China.

Given this hostile view towards participation with the UN, why should anyone expect the Chinese authorities’ conduct in Hong Kong to be any different?

Photo: GovHK.

There are reasons why the Chinese authorities should be aware that much more is at stake in Hong Kong, and they must exercise restraint.

First, how the Chinese government deals with the Civil Human Rights Front case will reveal a lot about whether it takes “international law” seriously, as Xi Jinping claims to do. On December 4, 1997, the Chinese government wrote a letter to the UN Secretary-General which stated that the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) would continue to apply to Hong Kong.

And Article 4 of the new National Security Law imposed on Hong Kong by the mainland’s National People’s Congress specifically reiterates that human rights should be respected and that the provisions of the ICCPR should be applied.

China thus has an obligation to respect human rights in Hong Kong, based on both international and domestic law.

The ICCPR guarantees the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association – two of the rights which the Civil Human Rights Front frequently exercised. Moreover, the act of signing a petition is speech that is protected under the right to freedom of expression. Investigating and prosecuting a civil society organisation like the Civil Human Rights Front – for planning demonstrations or signing petitions to advocate that the UN take action – would be a blatant violation of human rights.

Prominent pro-democracy figures including media mogul Jimmy Lai, veteran activist Lee Cheuk-yan and Civil Human Rights Front’s Figo Chan among the crowds that marched on October 1, 2019. Photo: Studio Incendo.

It would be hard to take Xi’s flowery promises about respecting international law seriously while he is engaged in trampling on it in Hong Kong.

Setting aside all normative considerations, as a major global financial hub the degree to which authorities respect the rule of law is something CEOs consider when looking for places to establish their regional headquarters. Lawyers also take it into account when assessing which legal jurisdiction would be the most dependable in the long run for financial contracts.

Second, how the Civil Human Rights Front is dealt with will help answer a question on everyone’s mind: how far will the authorities go in using the security law to restrict rights?

When the law was announced last spring, authorities went to great lengths to promise that its application would be limited, that it would mainly be used to deter and punish those who engaged in violence. Xie Feng, China’s Foreign Commissioner in Hong Kong, said the law would only target “troublemakers” who posed an “imminent danger.” Hong Kong’s Secretary for Security John Lee said it was needed to tackle “terrorism” and the “shroud of violence.” However, Chief Executive Carrie Lam recently said efforts to safeguard national security would be felt in every area of people’s lives “including the domains of politics, society, economy, culture, technology, the internet, finance, and public health.”

Commissioner Xie Feng. Photo: Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Expanding the application of the law to those who sought peacefully to communicate with the United Nations and accusing them of “colluding” with “foreign forces” puts the Chinese authorities in a very awkward position. To apply such a provision to the United Nations, supposedly Xi’s bedrock of the international order, makes the government look purely hypocritical and cowardly.

But more importantly, if the authorities go forward with persecution of a civil society organisation, it will set a new precedent. Any civil society group in Hong Kong could potentially be at risk. Such a move would signal that the worst-case scenario for Hong Kong is more likely to happen than not.

It’s not too late to pull back from the brink. Chinese authorities must do the right thing, and halt the investigation and persecution of anyone who was merely exercising their human rights as protected by international and domestic law – including engaging with the UN.


William Nee is the Research and Advocacy Coordinator at the Chinese Human Rights Defenders.


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