The national security law needs “flexibility” because national security threats are fluid and hard to define, Hong Kong delegates have told a United Nations (UN) committee.
Sitting before a team of UN experts in Geneva, Switzerland, on Thursday, delegates from the city were asked how they defined national security, as defendants have been denied bail in security law cases on the basis that they could continue to pose a risk to national security.
Michael Windfuhr, the rapporteur for China for the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, said the chairperson of the disbanded pro-democracy Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, Carol Ng, was not granted bail because the judge was not “satisfied that the person would not commit again on acts that would endanger national security.”
“If… [it] is not clarified what is really meant with this, [the law] can be [used] very arbitrarily,” Windfuhr said.
Ng is among 47 democrats charged in the city’s largest national security case, the trial for which began last week. She and other pro-democracy figures stand accused of taking part in a conspiracy to commit subversion linked to a primary election to select opposition candidates in July 2020.
The comments were made as Hong Kong entered its second and final day of meetings with the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. As China is a signatory to the UN’s International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, officials from mainland China, Hong Kong and Macau are required to report to the committee every five years on rights issues.
Responding to Windfuhr, a Hong Kong delegate said other countries did not provide a definition for national security in their relevant legislation either, as threats to national security will “change with circumstances.”
“This may be unanticipated or difficult to define in advance,” he said. “Hence, it is necessary for the legislation to have a certain degree of flexibility.”
He added that Hong Kong’s top court had discussed the meaning of the term “acts endangering national security” before and “did not point out that such term lacks sufficient certainty.”
Beijing imposed the national security law on Hong Kong in June 2020 following months of protests over a controversial extradition bill that would have allowed the transfer of fugitives to stand trial in mainland China. While authorities have hailed the security legislation and said it restored stability to the city, activists and rights groups have said it has been weaponised to silence opposition voices.
Hong Kong told the UN committee on Thursday that 243 people have been arrested since the law came into force. A total of 149 people, and five companies, have been charged.
Academic freedom ‘treasured’ by gov’t
The Hong Kong delegates were also questioned about academic freedom under the national security law, as well as the impact of Beijing’s interpretation on the hiring of foreign lawyers to take part in national security trials.
“Could you kindly respond to reports that the national security law… has limited academic freedom and cultural expressions?” asked Preeti Saran, the committee’s vice-chair. “We understand that books and syllabuses have changed, thereby removing large parts of cultural history and also other subjects in the curriculum.”
Since the national security law was implemented, the city’s Education Bureau has replaced Liberal Studies – a subject that some pro-Beijing figures said encouraged young people to protest in 2019 – with Citizenship and Social Development. The new course carries learning objectives including understanding the importance of the national security law and developing a sense of national identity.
After new textbooks reportedly claimed Hong Kong was never a British colony, the city’s Education Bureau published an article explaining why Britain never had sovereignty over Hong Kong.
Education Bureau Principal Assistant Secretary Derek Lai said a textbook review mechanism was “put in place to ensure textbooks are of good quality and factually correct,” adding that academic freedom was an “important social value treasured” by the government.
On Beijing’s interpretation of the national security law in December, which saw China’s top law-making body affirm that the city’s leader and a national security committee can decide if foreign lawyers can take part in national security cases in the city, a Hong Kong delegate said there was “no usurpation of the function of the court.”
“The arrangement in this respect doesn’t impair the independent judicial power of the Hong Kong courts,” a delegate said.
Windfhur also asked the Hong Kong delegates how many reports had been made through the National Security Department’s reporting hotline and how the cases are followed up “with relevance to economic, social and cultural rights.”
The government set up the hotline in November 2020 to allow the public to report national security-related matters.
Simon Wong, the Principal Assistant Secretary of the Security Bureau, said authorities had received around 400,000 “pieces of information.”
He did not answer Windfhur’s latter question.
The UN committee will provide its concluding remarks on March 6.
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