The UK’s foreign minister has said freedoms in Hong Kong have been “eroded” since Beijing enacted the national security law. Hong Kong authorities slammed the comments as “political smearing” and “fact twisting.”

UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly
UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly speaks on the UN Human Right Council on February 27, 2023. Photo: UNHRC, via video screenshot.

Speaking at the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council on Monday, British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said independent media outlets in Hong Kong had closed down since the security legislation was implemented.

“The right to freedom of speech and assembly guaranteed in Hong Kong’s Basic Law has been eroded. Those who speak out, including journalists or businessmen like Jimmy Lai, have been arrested,” the British official added.

Cleverly urged the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to uphold the Sino-British Joint Declaration and implement the recommendations of an earlier report from the UN, which called for the removal of Hong Kong’s national security law.

Beijing imposed the national security law in Hong Kong in June 2020 following a year of pro-democracy protests and unrest. It outlaws subversion, secession, collusion with foreign forces and terrorist acts.

The move alarmed 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.

jimmy lai
Jimmy Lai. File photo: StudioIncendo.

Since the law was enacted, two prominent independent outlets in Hong Kong – Apple Daily and Stand News – closed down after their newsrooms were raided by the national security police. Several of their former executives and employees are now facing charges under the security legislation or the colonial-era sedition law.

Additionally, a number of smaller news publications have ceased operations, but the Hong Kong government has denied the existence of a “chilling effect” and said the city’s press freedom has not been affected.

‘Political smearing’

In a Tuesday statement, a spokesperson from the Hong Kong government said Cleverly’s speech was “political smearing and fact twisting” and urged the UK to stop interfering with Hong Kong’s affairs.

The spokesperson said that the UK had “many laws on national security,” adding that the British official’s choice “to continue to wantonly smear” Hong Kong’s security law was “hypocrisy out of political motivation with double standards, and a despicable manoeuvre with politics prevailing over the law.”

National security law
A national security law banner. File photo: GovHK.

The statement added that law enforcement actions in Hong Kong “have nothing to do with [a person’s] political stance, background or occupation.”

“We are appalled by the remarks of the UK government official that seem to suggest that persons with certain backgrounds should be immune from legal sanctions for their illegal acts and activities. Such remarks are tantamount to granting such persons privileges to break the law and are totally contrary to the spirit of the rule of law,” the spokesperson added.

“Since the implementation of the NSL, the media landscape in Hong Kong has been as vibrant as ever,” the spokesperson said, adding that the press was free to comment on and criticise the government, “as long as they are not in violation of the law.”

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Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.