The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How far have human rights in Hong Kong eroded? We measured.

The national security law imposed two years ago marked a big change

The Hong Kong and Chinese flags appear in the city for the 25th anniversary of the handover from British to Chinese rule. (Paul Yeung/Reuters)

Two years ago, China issued a national security law for Hong Kong. The new law officially increased Beijing’s power over the people of Hong Kong, and it mandated harsh treatment for “collusion with foreign or external forces” and participation in terrorism.

In some cases, it may have opened the door to extradition to China — that’s the highly contentious issue that prompted millions in Hong Kong to begin protesting in spring 2019 after the city’s Legislative Council opened debate on an extradition bill.

Two years after the security law was issued — and exactly 25 years after Hong Kong became a “special administrative region” of China on July 1, 1997 — what has been the impact on rights in Hong Kong? Our data, part of the global Human Rights Measurement Initiative, helps explain the recent and continued erosion of rights in Hong Kong.

How do we measure human rights?

HRMI’s goal is to systematically examine respect for human rights around the world. Using a peer-reviewed methodology, we can determine which of the 30 countries/territories in our civil and political rights database have experienced meaningful changes in terms of government respect for human rights.

In Hong Kong, dozens of arrests for pro-democracy activities will have a chilling effect

For Hong Kong, we have data for the 2019-2021 period — this helps us gauge the impact of the national security law on “empowerment rights” in the city. This term refers to the ability of citizens to freely express themselves and participate fully in political life. To measure these rights, HRMI collects data on the rights of assembly and association, opinion and expression, and political participation — rights established in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights as well as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. By the standards established in international law, China and Hong Kong fall well short of respecting these rights.

How we did our research

To gather this data, we use a survey methodology that collects information from the best sources available: human rights experts, practitioners and journalists who directly monitor human rights practices in their country. We ask survey participants which groups of people may be at risk for having their rights violated and ask them to elaborate on who specifically within these groups is most at risk.

HRMI data shows that Hong Kong’s score for freedom of assembly and association dropped from 4.5 in 2019 to 3.1 in 2020 — on a scale from zero, where empowerment rights are not enjoyed, to 10, where rights are enjoyed fully. In 2021, Hong Kong’s score dropped further, to 2.5. We observed similar drops for the right of political participation and the right of opinion and expression. For comparison, the lowest-scoring country in our data set for 2021 was China, with a 2.1 score. HRMI creates an overall empowerment rights measure based on the scores for all three of the above rights. On that measure, Hong Kong now ranks among the bottom five in HRMI’s database.

One year on, here’s how China’s national security law has changed Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s electoral overhaul imposed further restrictions

China has also implemented restrictive measures aimed at Hong Kong’s electoral process. In March 2021, the Chinese government approved a plan to overhaul the Hong Kong electoral system. Qualitative information collected by HRMI illuminates not only what this overhaul included but also who within Hong Kong was most affected.

Our data suggests that the electoral changes diminish Hong Kongers’ rights to participate fully in political governance at all levels. Citing concerns about the pandemic and rising covid-19 cases, the Hong Kong government postponed the September 2020 elections for more than a year. But the new rules approved by the Legislative Council also reduced the proportion of directly elected seats from 50 percent to 22 percent.

This means Hong Kong residents can cast a direct vote for just 20 of the 90 legislative seats — an election committee chooses 40 of the seats, a critical change in the electoral process. The remaining seats are chosen by voters who register to vote along the lines of Hong Kong’s “functional constituencies” representing specific industry groups. And there may be questions surrounding the secrecy of ballots, after Hong Kong officials warned that casting a blank ballot would be considered a protest vote.

Other changes limit who can run for office, and appear to narrow the right to political participation, contrary to international legal treaties that cover that right. A new “patriot rule,” for example, requires politicians and officials to affirm their loyalty to Hong Kong, as well as China.

People who supported Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement may now find themselves unable to run for office, for example, even at the local level. HRMI data on Hong Kong describes cases in which pro-democracy candidates and leaders of the pro-democracy movement who tried to compete in the post-overhaul elections found themselves blacklisted from running for office.

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In October 2021, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions — the largest trade union in Hong Kong — disbanded after leaders were arrested or fled the country. Members also experienced difficulties in finding work, once they were singled out by the government. Union members were not the only targets of repression, however. HRMI’s people-at-risk data and other reports also identify journalists and opposition leaders.

In May, Hong Kong’s incoming chief executive was selected by an election committee made up of politicians and business executives. John Lee — the city’s former top security officer — ran unopposed, the only candidate to receive approval from Beijing.

Overall, the qualitative and quantitative data reinforce reporting on what’s happening to individual rights in Hong Kong. These data support the narrative that democratic ideals are eroding in Hong Kong, with repression coming in the wake of the national security law and the electoral overhaul.

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Stephen Bagwell is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. His work appears in the Journal of Human Rights and the Journal of Global Security Studies.

Meridith LaVelle is a PhD candidate in political science and international affairs at the University of Georgia, the director of the GLOBIS Human Rights Research Lab, and a member of the Civil and Political Rights team at the Human Rights Measurement Initiative.

K. Chad Clay is director of the Center for the Study of Global Issues and an associate professor of international affairs at the University of Georgia. He is also the co-founder and Methodology Research and Design Lead for the Human Rights Measurement Initiative.

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