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Freedom House on China’s Hong Kong Crackdown

China’s crackdown on Hong Kong has been swift and few pro-democracy activists have been spared. For some insight, I turned to Annie Wilcox Boyajian, Freedom House’s Director of Advocacy.

Our conversation, conducted via email and edited only for content, is below.

Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions about Hong Kong and China’s sanctioning of Freedom House’s President Mike Abramowitz. As Freedom House’s Director of Advocacy, what drove China to make this decision?

The decision to sanction our president and 10 other Americans is a testament to the effectiveness of the sanctions the U.S. imposed on Chinese and Hong Kong officials and a testament to the work of those sanctioned. The individual sanctions didn’t come as a total surprise since Freedom House and several other organizations had already been sanctioned by the Chinese government last December. And, the inconvenience this may pose to Freedom House staff pales in comparison to the risks faced by those in Hong Kong who are calling for rights and democracy.

In its crackdown on dissent, publisher and entrepreneur Jimmy Lai was arrested. Does this speak to China’s concerns that public figures in Hong Kong won’t tow the party line in not questioning China’s control over the territory?

The bravery of people like Jimmy Lai, and, frankly, of everyone who took to the streets to protest, scares the Chinese Communist Party and is one of the reasons they are cracking down with such force now. Under the “one party, two systems” model, Hong Kong was supposed to enjoy a high degree of autonomy and robust rights and freedoms until at least 2047. The Chinese government has abandoned that system and ignored the law governing Hong Kong by imposing the new national security law that has led to this harsh crackdown on rights. The NSL has had a chilling effect in Hong Kong in many ways, but has also galvanized support for the pro-democracy movement in a way officials may not have anticipated.

Is the decay of the rule of law in Hong Kong permanent, or do you envision with enough international pressure, China might relent and allow previously enjoyed freedoms?

Hong Kong’s previously strong rule of law made it an internationally renounced center for finance, free speech, and debate. It could have remained China’s best asset, but the Chinese government is instead opting to obliterate rights in Hong Kong, which is unfortunate. We certainly hope the Chinese and Hong Kong governments will change course and will listen to the people of Hong Kong who are seeking to protect and defend the rights they are supposed to enjoy under the law.

What are Freedom House’s goals as they relate to Hong Kong?

As an independent watchdog organization, Freedom House seeks to defend democracy and human rights around the world, including in Hong Kong, by standing with those advocating for rights in their own countries. We will continue to monitor the deterioration of rights in Hong Kong through our research, and push for a robust U.S. response through our advocacy. It is the people of Hong Kong who will decide their future for themselves, and it is our honor to stand with them as they seek to defend their rights.

Can you explain some of the challenges faced by journalists, publishers, and other media figures in Hong Kong?

Journalists and media executives in Hong Kong are operating in an environment of tremendous pressure. Part of the reason the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests have captured the attention of the world is due to the incredible, fact-based reporting coming out of Hong Kong. And, of course, Chinese and Hong Kong officials know that, and are doing what they can to clamp down on this type of information, which is a common practice on the mainland. Outlets like Apple Daily and the Japanese newspaper Nikkei have been raided by police. Jimmy Lai and other media executives and journalists have been arrested and are facing charges like “colluding with foreign powers,” which is illegal under the new national security law. Throughout the protests, journalists have faced violence from police and armed thugs likely linked to Beijing. Other journalists have been barred from Hong Kong. This of course creates enormous pressure for the journalists who remain to self-censor, which is exactly part of the reason why Hong Kong and Chinese officials are cracking down. But there is still excellent reporting coming out of Hong Kong, and it will be hard to eliminate.

Hong Kong is but one example. Freedoms across the globe are under assault. How has a crisis like COVID made efforts to highlight the fight more difficult? Has Freedom House had to reevaluate its mission statement?

Even before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been deeply concerned about the trajectory of freedom in the world. Our 2020 Freedom in the World report tracked the 14th consecutive year of global decline in political rights and civil liberties. Authoritarians are getting stronger, and democracies are on their back heels. These conditions have only been exacerbated by COVID-19, as many governments have used the pandemic to increase censorship, enhance surveillance, and disrupt elections with little regard for human rights or democratic standards. COVID has made our work more challenging, but, our mission to monitor and defend democracy and human rights around the world won’t change. Pro-democracy advocates aren’t stopping their work and neither are we.

Are there any bright spots as far as freedom indexes that Freedom House is tracking?

Watching the news these days can be a depressing exercise, but we do see signs of hope. Thirty-seven countries tracked in the 2020 Freedom in the World report saw improvements in political rights and civil liberties. The fact that protesters continue to take to the streets in places like Hong Kong, Thailand, Belarus, Sudan, and even the United States, despite the challenges presented by COVID, is inspiring. It’s a testament to the universality of the desire for democratic rights and freedoms. We take the long view at Freedom House. People have the power to generate reforms in democratic countries and transform authoritarian regimes. Things look tough now, but no autocratic regime can last forever.