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Hong Kong allies of muzzled mainland China lawyers fear same fate

Five years after human rights crackdown, national security law spurs new fears

Activists led by Albert Ho Chun-yan, with microphone, approach Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong in December 2018 to protest a crackdown on human rights lawyers in China.   © Getty Images

HONG KONG -- On Thursday's fifth anniversary on the "709 Incident" -- the day when hundreds of human rights lawyers were arrested in mainland China -- a group of Hong Kong supporters planned a public screening of a documentary film about the crackdown. But the event had to be canceled as the Hong Kong government had not approved it.

The documentary "709 Companion" is the third in a series being commissioned by the China Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, an organization in Hong Kong supporting the affected Chinese lawyers. The two previous films -- "709 Fellows" in 2017 and "709 The Other Shore" in 2019 -- were shown without any issues.

But not this time.

The term "709" comes from the date July 9, when over a hundred human rights lawyers were rounded up in China in 2015. The three digits are widely remembered, and resonate with people familiar with the incident.

"It was OK at that time. So you see, this is the consequence of the national security law," Albert Ho Chun-yan, chairman of the support group, told the Nikkei Asian Review on Thursday.

According to Ho, the application for approval had been submitted before the enactment of the law on June 30. The group has pressed the government to issue the permit, as it had sold 50-plus tickets in a fundraiser to support the lawyers and film production. But since the permit was not approved, "we had no alternative but to suspend it for the time being," said Ho.

A person in charge of the venue at the Hong Kong Arts Centre, where the film was supposed to run, confirmed that the event was originally planned for Thursday but was being canceled. Asked about the cancellation, a government spokesperson requested more details about the event without providing any comment.

The national security law, passed by Beijing and imposed on Hong Kong, stipulates secession, subversion of state power, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces to be the four crimes that carry the maximum penalty of life behind bars, and even extradition to mainland China for trial. The law has been in effect for less than ten days but has already sent chills across Hong Kong.

"There are people who are scared. Some have even left Hong Kong and others are trying to get out," said Emily Lau Wai-hing, a longtime pro-democracy activist and supporter of human rights lawyers in China. "This chilling effect that the Communist Party wants to have on Hong Kong, I think is happening."

Both Ho and Lau said some members of the support group had dropped out after the security law came into effect.

Ho, a human rights lawyer himself and veteran pro-democracy activist, believes he is now "under surveillance" and says he has been followed.

"Five years ago, detention of human rights lawyers in mainland China was the most alarming expression of the Xi Jinping government's hostility to independent civil society," said Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch. But even for the veteran China watcher, Beijing imposing a national security law on Hong Kong, which was a safe haven for those mainland lawyers and dissidents, was unimaginable.

"Even one year ago, none of us thought of this law with the scope and scale ... coming to Hong Kong," she said. She is more pessimistic than others when it comes to China, but "we were not pessimistic enough."

The situation on the mainland for human rights lawyers is worse.

Yu Wenshan, a prominent human rights lawyer in Beijing, was sentenced to four years in prison after a secret trial in mid-June, according to his wife Xu Yan. His crime was "inciting subversion of state power," one of the four crimes included in the Hong Kong national security law.

Xu Zhiyong, another prominent Beijing lawyer and former university lecturer, has been in custody since February. He has not been allowed to see anyone, including lawyers and family members. While the reason for his detention is unclear, Xu participated in a forum on current affairs last December before he was arrested in Guangdong Province.

Chinese rights advocate Xu Zhiyong speaks during a Beijing meeting in 2013. After serving a four-year sentence for his activities, Xu was taken into custody again in February.   © Reuters

Xu had once served a four-year prison sentence for his activism, including co-founding the New Citizens' Movement, a now-banned civil rights group demanding fair protections and rule of law based on what is stipulated in the Chinese constitution.

The national security law has put Hong Kong supporters of Chinese activists in a vulnerable position. "No doubt we are exposed to the risk of being prosecuted under the new national security law, because the law is very broadly drafted and the language is loose," said Ho, who is a leading figure in the territory's pro-democracy movement and a core member of the Tiananmen crackdown commemoration for decades.

"But I cannot retract and withdraw myself, because I need to stand firm to protect my home, protect the space," Ho stressed. "So I need to speak out."

Lau echoed her long-term colleague. "It's a difficult time for Hong Kong, but even more difficult for the lawyers," she said. "The message that we want to give to the lawyers is that we will continue to do our best to support them."

Lo King-wah, the director of the three documentary films commissioned by Ho's group, said the new law is "worrying." But he vowed to keep on shooting the films. "If they ask me, I will still do it," he said.

Lo added that his strength comes from those who he has been covering over the years. "I look up to those 709 Fellows. Even after [the current clampdowns] they still speak up after five years," the filmmaker said. "So I don't see why Hong Kong people should turn silent."

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