UK-based watchdog Hong Kong Watch says that Hong Kong’s Security Bureau has threatened its founder with prison and fines for allegedly breaching the city’s national security law. Local authorities have accused the group of interference and said the law applies worldwide.

Benedict Rogers
Benedict Rogers. Photo: Benedict Rogers.

In the letter, seen by HKFP and published on the NGO’s website, Hong Kong Watch is accused of colluding with foreign forces. Police warned that the founder could face up to life imprisonment and a fine of HK$100,000.

“Criminal investigation reveals that ‘Hong Kong Watch’ has been engaging in activities seriously interfering in the affairs of the HKSAR and jeopardising national security of the People’s Republic of China,” the letter read.

“Such acts and activities, including lobbying foreign countries to impose sanctions or blockade and engage in other hostile activities against the People’s Republic of China or the HKSAR, and seriously disrupting the formulation and implementation of laws or policies by the HKSAR Government or by the Central People’s Government, constitute the Collusion Offence contrary to Article 29 of the National Security Law.”

A second letter, dated March 10 and signed by Annette Cheng for the Commissioner of Police, warned the group’s Chief Executive Benedict Rogers not to disclose details: “You are reminded to keep confidential any information pertaining to the case and not to make any disclosure that may prejudice investigation or other law enforcement action by the Hong Kong Police Force.”

hong kong watch
Photo: HKFP remix.

The NGO’s website appears to still be partially blocked in Hong Kong amid fears of rising internet censorship. A handful of pro-democracy and Taiwan-linked websites have become inaccessible since the implementation of the Beijing-imposed law two years ago. However, the site is still accessible via VPN circumnavigation tools and it remains available via some internet service providers.

Hong Kong Watch was founded in 2017, two months after Rogers was barred from entering the city.

‘We will not be silenced’

The letter ordered Rogers to disband the group and remove the website. However, in a statement, Rogers refused to shut it down: “By threatening a UK-based NGO with financial penalties and jail for merely reporting on the human rights situation in Hong Kong, this letter exemplifies why Hong Kong’s National Security Law is so dangerous. We will not be silenced by an authoritarian security apparatus which, through a mixture of senseless brutality and ineptitude, has triggered rapid mass migration out of the city and shut down civil society.”

Hong Kong's National Security Committee.
Committee for Safeguarding National Security of Hong Kong. Photo: GovHK.

“The Police will not comment on specific cases. In conducting any operation, the Police will act on the basis of actual circumstances and according to the law,” the Police Public Relations Branch (PPRB) said in an emailed response to an enquiry made by HKFP on Monday.

Citing Article 43 of the national security law, the PPRB said that “the Police may require service provider(s) to take a disabling action on electronic message(s) on an electronic platform the publication of which is likely to constitute an offence endangering national security or is likely to cause the occurrence of an offence endangering national security,” adding that “The public can continue to use the internet lawfully and will not be affected.”

In response to HKFP on Monday, Rogers said he had no intention of trying to return to Hong Kong: “In the UK, I don’t think there is much that the Chinese Communist Party regime and its apparatchiks can do, though of course I will have to be mindful of security when I travel. I look forward to returning to Hong Kong and China when they are free.”

Former colonial governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten – a patron of the group – said in a statement: “This is another disgraceful example of Mr Putin’s friends in Beijing and their quislings in Hong Kong trying not only to stamp out freedom of expression and information in Hong Kong but also to internationalise their campaign against evidence, freedom and honesty.”

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said: “The unjustifiable action taken against the UK-based NGO HKW is clearly an attempt to silence those who stand up for human rights in HK.”

In June 2020, Beijing inserted national security legislation directly into Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – bypassing the local legislature – following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It criminalised subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which were broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure.

The move gave police sweeping new powers, alarming democrats, civil society groups and trade partners, as such laws have been used broadly to silence and punish dissidents in China. However, the authorities say it has restored stability and peace to the city.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.