The mainland Chinese government played an “unprecedented role” in directing election outcomes in Hong Kong last year, according to an annual US State Department report on Hong Kong released on Thursday. For the third consecutive year, the US maintained that the city does not warrant preferential treatment under US laws, compared to China.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken delivers remarks to the press at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on March 2, 2022.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken delivers remarks to the press at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C., on March 2, 2022. Photo: Ron Przysucha/US Gov.

The UK also released its biannual report on Hong Kong on Thursday, in which it said that the city’s civil society had been “devastated” by the national security law and “almost no independent media” was left. The UK report came a day after two senior British judges resigned from Hong Kong’s top court.

The US annual Hong Kong Policy Act Report and the UK’s Six-Monthly Report on Hong Kong are published under requirements that govern both countries’ relationship with the city. The reports provide an overview of the state of Hong Kong’s basic rights and freedoms, as well as its democratic development, for the countries’ own foreign policy-making.

Their release coincided with the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China annual report, which also discusses Hong Kong in detail.

Among concerns highlighted by the US report were “sweeping changes” imposed by the Chinese government that overhauled Hong Kong elections for the city’s legislature and leadership. “[People’s Republic of China] officials played an unprecedented role in directing the outcome of the Hong Kong elections” by requiring all candidates for public office be pro-Beijing ‘patriots’ through a lengthy vetting process without possibility to appeal,” the report read.

2021 LegCo Election: Stanley Ng Chau-pei, head of the Hong Kong Federation of Unions, is canvassing in Siu sai wan.
Stanley Ng Chau-pei, head of the Hong Kong Federation of Unions, canvassing in Siu Sai Wan. File Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

The December legislative elections saw record low turnout, with only one of the expanded 90 seats going to a lawmaker who claimed he was not part of the pro-establishment camp.

Pro-democracy groups, media outlets and unions were targeted with “raids, arrests, prosecutions, and asset freezes,” the report said. It cited Apple Daily and Stand News, two local news outlets that were forced to shut down after being accused of endangering national security, among other charges.

The US report also detailed a raft of concerns for deteriorating civic rights in the city’s elections, media outlets, assembly, reduced freedom of movement, of academic pursuit and of religion. It also called attention to worsening judicial independence, access to the internet and disinformation activities conducted by Chinese actors in Hong Kong.

The number of US citizens living in Hong Kong is estimated to have dropped from 85,000 in 2021 to 70,000 owing to Covid-19 restrictions and other factors, the report said. Many academic, cultural or scientific exchange programmes between Hong Kong and the US have also been halted since 2020.

“Areas of remaining autonomy” in the city include trade, currency, climate and data policies. China also did not extend its anti-foreign sanctions law to Hong Kong, the report noted.

Chinese National Day Oct 1, 2021 Tsim Sha Tsui flag
A woman holds a bundle of small Chinese national flags at the Star Ferry Pier in Tsim Sha Tsui on October 1, 2021 to mark the 72nd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. File Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Chinese and Hong Kong authorities “further eroded both democratic institutions and human rights, and profoundly impaired independent media operations and freedom of expression,” said US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement that accompanied the report. “Beijing will ultimately force many of the city’s best and brightest to flee, tarnishing Hong Kong’s reputation and weakening its competitiveness.”

The city enjoyed special trade status in the United States under the US-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 but it ended when President Donald Trump signed into law the Hong Kong Autonomy Act in 2020, soon after Beijing imposed the controversial national security law. The 2022 US report reaffirmed that the city would no longer enjoy special treatment.

Hong Kong International Airport travel immigration emigration
A family at Hong Kong International Airport. File photo: Candice Chau/HKFP.

103,900 BN(O) visa applicants

The UK report laid out similar concerns as the US on the city’s civic liberties. “China claims it has strengthened Hong Kong’s democracy, but its actions tell another story,” wrote British foreign secretary Liz Truss. “We remain firmly committed to our bespoke visa route for Hong Kongers with British Nationals (Overseas) status and their family members.”

A total of 103,900 people had applied to move to the UK through the scheme by the end of 2021, she said.

In response, the Hong Kong government said it “strongly oppose[d] the unfounded and ridiculous allegations against the HKSAR Government made by foreign countries through various reports” on Friday.

The 2021 legislative elections “manifest[ed] the broad representation, political inclusiveness, balanced participation and fair competition of the new electoral system,” the spokesperson said, while the national security law “clearly stipulates that human rights shall be respected and protected.”

Former acting chief editor of Stand News Patrick Lam was seen taken away by national security police.
Former acting chief editor of Stand News Patrick Lam was seen taken away by national security police on December 28, 2021. Photo: Supplied.

Samuel Chu, president of US-based pro-democracy advocacy group The Campaign for Hong Kong, said the US’s “de-certification” of Hong Kong autonomy for the third year “does not and should not surprise anyone.”

“[W]e cannot continue to allow the Beijing and Hong Kong leaders to benefit from their international status and accompanying privileges while repressing their own people and threatening foreign citizens,” he said in a statement. “The world now recognizes that we were too late in acting to deter Russia and Putin in their aggression – let us not do the same about the Chinese Communist Party and Xi [Jinping].”

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Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.