Hong Kong has strongly disapproved of the US 2022 Report on International Religious Freedom, in which US officials raised concerns about the arrest of religious figures and the shrinking space for civil society.

US state department
US State Department. File Photo: Wikicommons.

“The HKSAR government strongly disapproves of and firmly rejects the US’ attempt, through the so-called annual report once again, to smear and attack the HKSAR in its dutiful, faithful and lawful implementation of the [national security law] using the name of religious freedom to disguise its despicable political motives,” a spokesman for the government said in a press release on Tuesday.

The spokesman said that law enforcement actions were nothing to do with political stance, background or religion, but were “based on evidence, strictly according to the law and for the acts of the individuals or organisations concerned.”

Religious leaders ‘self-censoring’

According to the report, issued by the Office of International Religious Freedom of the US Department of State, religious leaders and rights advocates stated that religious practices remained largely intact during the year, though some religious groups reported facing greater pressure. Some stated that they were self-censoring politically sensitive content from their services, and not appointing clergy deemed to be critical of the government. 

The report said Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former Catholic bishop of Hong Kong and an outspoken defender of civil rights, was arrested by national security police on suspicion of “collusion with foreign forces.” 

cyd ho joseph zen margaret ng denise ho hui po-keung 612 humanitarian relief fund
Cardinal Joseph Zen, a former trustee of 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, spoke to the press at West Kowloon Law Courts Building on November 25, 2022. File Photo: Kyle Lam/HKFP.

Meanwhile, a court convicted Protestant pastor Garry Pang of sedition for disturbing a national security law-related court hearing in January and sentenced him to 12 months’ imprisonment.

“Multiple Catholic church leaders, including Bishop Stephen Chow, said the space for freedom of expression in Hong Kong was ‘diminishing’,” the report claimed.

US officials “repeatedly raised concerns regarding the arrest of religious figures and the shrinking space for civil society, including religious groups,” the report added, alongside public messaging and meetings with official counterparts, religious leaders, NGOs, and community representatives.

Human rights ‘respected’

According to the Hong Kong government spokesman, since the implementation of the national security law, livelihood and economic activity has returned to normal: “[T]he US’ so-called annual report has once again turned a blind eye to such reality and blatantly spread misleading and unfounded remarks relating to the [national security law].”

central government offices
Central Government Offices. Photo: Kelly Ho/HKFP.

The spokesman added that residents enjoy religious freedom and freedom of speech under the Basic Law, the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance and other relevant legislation. “The [security law] clearly stipulates that human rights shall be respected and protected in safeguarding national security in the HKSAR.”

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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Mandy Cheng is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. Previously, she worked at Ming Pao, focusing on investigative and feature reporting. She also contributed to Cable TV and others.