Hong Kong’s Fight for Democracy and Freedom: Testimony to Canadian Parliament

On August 11, 2020, Akram Keram, a program officer on China at the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), testified on Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy before the Canadian House of Commons Special Committee on Canada-China Relations. The meeting, which followed the draconian national security law that the Chinese Communist Party imposed on Hong Kong at the end of June, also included testimony from representatives of Hong Kong Watch, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and other leading human right’s organizations. Read Mr. Keram’s remarks below and watch the video here.

Hong Kong’s Fight for Democracy and Freedom

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. It is an honor to be offering testimony before this body today. I have been invited to offer remarks on behalf of Mr. Carl Gershman, President of the National Endowment for Democracy—one of 11 individual Americans officially sanctioned by the Chinese government just yesterday for their support of pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong. [Read our response to the threat of Chinese sanctions here.]

Hong Kong is an international, cosmopolitan city, a global financial center that is praised for its culture of diversity and inclusiveness, freedom of expression, and robust rule of law. For the past 17 months, it has captured the attention of the world as millions of ordinary Hongkongers took to the streets to protest a controversial extradition bill, which over time became a protest movement about the basic rights and freedoms of the Hong Kong people. Sadly, the just and legal demands of Hongkongers has been met with local officials’ indifference, suppression, arrests, and breathtaking police brutality—all directly backed by the central government in Beijing. Since June 2019, Hong Kong police have made around 9,000 arrests related to the protest movement; among them, over 1,700 children under 18 years of age, including eight elementary school students. [Learn more about NED’s work in Asia.]

Despite international outcry and criticism, things have only continued to get worse for the people of Hong Kong. On June 30, in near-complete secrecy and with no regard for its internationally recognized legal obligations to the city of Hong Kong, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) forced through the new Law of the People’s Republic of China on Safeguarding National Security in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region  (NSL). Already, the NSL has brought about one of the darkest moments in Hong Kong’s history, attacking Hongkongers’ fundamental rights and freedoms. The NSL has carved out unprecedented space for CCP leadership to directly and systematically impose its will in Hong Kong, and they have wasted no time in using it to arrest activists in the street, disqualify pro-democracy politicians, dismiss tenured academics, and just yesterday, silence the voice of critical media outlets.

In spite of these heavy-handed and often violent actions, Hong Kong’s citizens have not simply or quietly given up their rights. Last November, amid record turnout, pro-democracy candidates won in 17 out of 18 district elections. Since then, Hongkongers have turned to the international community to take action, activating their international networks—including those here in Canada—to encourage governments around the world to take a stand, whether by cancelling extradition agreements with Hong Kong or calling on the United Nations to launch an investigation. Just last month, over 600,000 citizens once again took to the polls to support pro-democracy candidates in the Legislative Council election primaries. And then, in a shocking display of disregard for the legally guaranteed rights of Hongkongers, and demonstrating the extent of Beijing’s fears, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the Legislative Council elections would be delayed for a full year.

It is crucial that governments around the world recognize that the CCP’s actions stand in absolute conflict with existing local and international laws and norms. The NSL directly contradicts parts of Hong Kong’s Basic Law and the Bill of Rights Ordinance. Further, provisions of the NSL also conflict with China’s obligations under international law, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The NSL also takes the unprecedented step of asserting jurisdiction over citizens of other countries. It is therefore not just Hong Kong’s legal institutions under attack, but also the international legal system that Beijing challenges with its authoritarian overreach.

There is much the international community can do in response. First and foremost, it can take steps to protect Hongkongers who are seeking to resettle themselves and the families; since May, thousands of Hong Kongers have applied for foreign immigration documents, seeking safety and protection in third countries, including Canada. This includes a large number of students and young activists, who are alarmed at the Hong Kong government’s efforts to impose so-called “patriotic education” and other nationalistic initiatives that challenge Hong Kong’s academic freedom and cultural and political diversity. After the arrest of Jimmy Lai just days ago, Hongkongers are also rightly concerned that the CCP will begin rolling out the censorship and surveillance machine it has perfected in Tibet and East Turkistan, which the CCP refers to as Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

It is incumbent upon the international community to consider other measures that might be undertaken to protect the future of democracy, freedom, and rule of law in Hong Kong. Without such support, as the events over the last few days have shown, the shadow of authoritarian rule will continue to grow, in ways that are all too familiar to those who have already suffered the CCP’s coercion and repression like us from the Uyghur community. [Here’s how the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act builds upon the work of NED grantees.]

Here at the National Endowment for Democracy, we believe in the rights of all people to freely determine their government—one that ensures freedom of expression, belief, and association, respects the fundamental rights of individuals and minorities, promotes a free press, and supports meaningful access to justice. We also believe that the actions of the Chinese government speak for themselves, whether in regard to its denial of basic rights and freedoms for its people or its abuse of authority to breach legal commitments in Hong Kong. We urge the Canadian government to stand with other nations to condemn the CCP’s abrogation of the rights of Hongkongers and violations of the integrity of the international legal order.

Watch the video here