The Hong Kong government has rejected the findings of an official US agency, which said the city’s Beijing-imposed national security law has had “a devastating effect” on civil society.

The government statement on Wednesday evening responded to the publication of a report by the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, entitled “Hong Kong’s Civil Society: From an Open City to a City of Fear.”

October 1, 2019 National Day protset
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.

The report interviewed people including former members of civil society groups, researchers, and journalists, and detailed incidents such as the disbandment of groups including the Civil Human Rights Front and the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China.

“The two years of the National Security Law crackdown have had a devastating effect on Hong Kong’s once-dynamic civil society,” the report concluded.

“The authorities have suppressed not only the city’s democracy movement, but also its rich civic life.”

The commission, made up of legislators and senior administration officials, was established in 2000. According to the group’s website, it has a “legislative mandate to monitor human rights and the development of the rule of law in China,” and submit an annual report to the US president and Congress.

‘Totally biased’

The Hong Kong administration described the report’s comments as “totally biased.” It said human rights and the rule of law were protected under the national security legislation, which came into force in June 2020, and suggestions to the contrary were “totally unsubstantiated.”

US Congressional-Executive Commission on China Report
The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China Report on Hong Kong civil society. Photo: US Congressional-Executive Commission on China, via screenshot.

“As regards the report’s ungrounded allegations on disbandment of organisations, it should also be stressed that the National Security Law does not seek to prevent, suppress and punish normal interactions with other countries, regions or relevant international organisations,” the government statement read.

While reiterating that freedom of association was guaranteed under the Basic Law, the government also said that this freedom, similar to other rights, was “not absolute.”

“It may be subject to restrictions that are provided by law and are necessary for pursuing legitimate aims such as the protection of national security or public order,” the statement read.

The national security law was drafted in the aftermath of the 2019 extradition bill protests.

national security law banner
Photo: GovHK.

The sweeping legislation criminalises subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts, which have been broadly defined to include disruption to transport and other infrastructure. More than 50 Hong Kong civic organisations have shut down since it came into force and as of last month 215 people had been arrested on suspicion of endangering national security.

A list of top Hong Kong officials, including current Chief Executive John Lee and former leader Carrie Lam, have had sanctions imposed on them by the US since August 2020, with Washington saying that they were involved in the law’s development and implementation.

The commission, in a report released in July this year, suggested the US government impose further sanctions on 15 Hong Kong prosecutors, saying their involvement in national security and protest-related cases was tantamount to playing a role in “expanding arbitrary detention.”

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Candice is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. She previously worked as a researcher at a local think tank. She has a BSocSc in Politics and International Relations from the University of Manchester and a MSc in International Political Economy from London School of Economics.