Beijing loyalists hunt down Hong Kong civil society leaders

Almost from the time he took office as chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association this year, British lawyer Paul Harris was a marked man in Beijing.

Officials called him “anti-China” for criticizing a national security law imposed on Hong Kong last year which lawyers say broke a legal firewall previously separating the justice system from the territory of that of the continent.

“In my opinion, the Hong Kong National Security Law of 2020 does not comply with the rule of law,” wrote Harris, who has worked in Hong Kong since the 1990s and speaks Cantonese, upon entering. active.

After only a year as president, Harris – who declined to speak to the Financial Times for this article – decided not to run for a second term. This has raised fears about the independence of the HKBA as it prepares for an election next month to replace it, according to lawyers who spoke to the Financial Times.

The problems of the HKBA are common to all Hong Kong civil society. Once a noisy mix of more sober interest groups, unions and professional bodies, more than 50 organizations have announced their closures since the introduction of the National Security Act in June 2020.

Many are being replaced by organizations with close ties to the government, while those that remain are gradually silenced. The loss of civil society groups threatens to further undermine the traditions of free speech and the rule of law that underpin Hong Kong as a hub of international affairs, critics say.

In its latest biannual report on Hong Kong, the UK said “judicial independence is increasingly finely balanced” and noted the pressure on Harris.

Paul Harris, President of the Hong Kong Bar Association. He has decided not to run for a second term © Zuma Press / Alamy

Human rights group Amnesty International, announcing the closure of its offices in the city in October, said: “Hong Kong has long been an ideal regional base for international civil society organizations, but the recent targeting of Local human rights groups and trade unions report an intensification of the authorities’ campaign to rid the city of all dissenting voices.

Launched in response to anti-government protests in the city in 2019, the crackdown has been described by pro-Beijing loyalists as “de-radicalization.” It has spread from seemingly apolitical professional organizations such as the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants, whose regulatory powers to license the profession have been vested in a government body, the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, which has shut down its operations. doors in September after helping teachers who had been accused of professional misconduct related to the protests.

A day after the HKPTU, which was founded in 1973 and had over 90,000 members, voted to disband, a new organization called the Hong Kong Education Workers Union was formed. Its members are closely linked to the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, a separate union.

“They need new faces. . . claim to be independent voices after the dissolution of many civil society organizations, ”said Mung Siu-tat, the former head of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, a labor group that had more than 90 members before it was dissolved in September. Kim Wong, chairman of the EWU, however, insisted the group was independent.

“With those [existing] organizations are retreating, there is now room for new groups that are more cooperative with the authorities, ”said Lau Siu-kai, vice president of the China Association for Hong Kong and Macao Studies, a group of semi-official reflection of mainland China.

Civil society leaders, some of whom aligned with the pro-democracy movement, said official pressure on their groups followed a manual: government or pro-Beijing figures or state newspapers in Hong Kong publicly attack an organization, suggesting it might have broken national security law. Then, largely anonymous “intermediaries” intervene and threaten civil society leaders and their families.

“In fact, I was interviewed by the intermediaries three times in a month,” said Mung, who has left town. “They kept asking me questions about HKCTU’s source of income and foreign funding. “

In an electronic exchange consulted by the FT, one of these intermediaries first revealed that he knew the whereabouts of a family member of a civil society figure before warning that his security and the career of the no one was in danger if he did not quit his position in the organization.

In this climate, next month’s election for the HKBA, which represents more than 1,500 lawyers, promises to be particularly tense.

A candidate for the presidency of the association is Victor Dawes, according to people familiar with the matter. Senior lawyer, Dawes has never publicly commented on social or political issues. Dawes did not respond to an inquiry into his intention to run.

Some in the legal community believe that his candidacy would be a safer bet than a more virulent personality to ensure the sustainability of the association. “Perception is the most important [thing]Said Alan Leong, president between 2001 and 2003.

The Hong Kong Law Society, which represents 12,000 lawyers and is over 114 years old, was also attacked during her election, with state media warning that she could lose her powers of discipline and admitting new lawyers if “anti-China” candidates were chosen.

Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong, recently warned the organization against choosing candidates seen as opponents of the government.

The organization’s new president, Chan Chak-ming, dismissed concerns about his independence. “We are not supposed to criticize anything. We are a professional body that gives professional advice, ”he said. “As a Bar, we cannot influence government policies. “

A member of the HKBA familiar with the organization’s electoral process said the government attacks “would deter many, many people from doing their jobs” and hamper public debate in the city.

“The ability to confidently say that there will be no impact on you personally or on the body as a whole has diminished,” the person said.

Video: How the National Security Law is Changing Hong Kong

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