U.S. Department of State
2023 Hong Kong Policy Act Report
BUREAU OF EAST ASIAN AND PACIFIC AFFAIRS
MARCH 31, 2023
Consistent with sections 205 and 301 of the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 (the “Act”) (22 U.S.C. 5725 and 5731) and section 7043(g)(3)(C) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2023 (Div. K, P.L. 117-328), the Department submits this report and the enclosed certification on conditions in Hong Kong from April 2022 through January 2023 (“covered period”).
The Department of State assesses that during the covered period, the central government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) took new actions directly threatening U.S. interests in Hong Kong and that are inconsistent with the Basic Law and the PRC’s obligation pursuant to the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 (“Sino-British Joint Declaration”) to allow Hong Kong to enjoy a high degree of autonomy. There remain differences between Hong Kong and mainland China in some areas, including commercial and trade policy, internet freedoms, and freedom of religion, but PRC and Hong Kong authorities continued to use “national security” as a broad and vague basis to undermine the rule of law and protected rights and freedoms and continued to stymie any progress toward universal suffrage in elections for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and Legislative Council as set out in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. In the Certification of Hong Kong’s Treatment under United States Laws, the Secretary of State certified Hong Kong does not warrant treatment under U.S. law in the same manner as U.S. laws were applied to Hong Kong before July 1, 1997.
During the covered period, PRC authorities continued to deny people in Hong Kong the ability to play a meaningful role in the city’s governance, including for the first time permitting only one candidate to run for Hong Kong Chief Executive. Hong Kong authorities, under the supervision of the PRC central government, continued to use the National Security Law (NSL) that the central government imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020 to further erode the rule of law in Hong Kong and the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people in Hong Kong. In December 2022, the PRC National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) issued its first “interpretation” of the NSL stating that the Chief Executive and Committee for Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong have the authority to issue legally binding certificates and decisions on issues related to national security that are not subject to judicial review. According to legal experts, this interpretation could significantly increase the authority of Hong Kong’s executive branch over the judiciary.
Hong Kong authorities continued to arrest and prosecute people for peaceful political expression critical of the local and central governments, including for posting and forwarding social media posts. While Internet access remained widespread and generally open, local authorities criminally charged people engaged in online political speech.
Authorities continued to reportedly undermine the rights of defendants in cases designated as involving national security, including by denying them bail and subjecting them to lengthy periods of pretrial detention; stripping them of the right to a trial by jury under domestic law and requiring that their cases be overseen by a judge specially designated by the Beijing-endorsed Chief Executive to hear national security-related cases; and restricting their choice of legal counsel. In cases where authorities assert a nexus with national security, there is little to no expectation of a fair trial or associated fair trial guarantees and other applicable legal protections.
Hong Kong and PRC authorities continued to target civil society groups, media companies, activists, journalists, political parties, labor unions, and other individuals and organizations that they accused of being connected to Hong Kong’s prodemocracy movement or otherwise critical of the local or central government. Authorities arrested Cardinal Joseph Zen, the former Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong, and other trustees of a now-dissolved humanitarian fund that supported individuals arrested or injured during the 2019 pro-democracy protests, on suspicion of “collusion with foreign forces.” In a separate but related case, Zen and the fund’s other former trustees were convicted and fined for failing to register the fund as a society, in what the defendants described as an infringement of their freedom of association.
Hong Kong officials prosecuted editors and executives of now-closed media outlets Apple Daily and Stand News, including Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai, for alleged national security-related offenses, and accused Stand News of sedition for publishing news articles related to pro-democracy politicians. Authorities continued to employ legal procedures under the NSL in cases with non-NSL charges, such as sedition and commercial fraud. Independent media outlets continued to close, citing Hong Kong’s restrictive political environment. Under direction from the PRC, Hong Kong authorities continued to restrict political expression in schools and universities, impose “national security education” in all publicly funded institutions, and penalize teachers and academics who expressed dissenting opinions.
The UN Human Rights Committee, during its periodic review of Hong Kong’s compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), urged Hong Kong and PRC authorities to repeal the NSL and the Hong Kong sedition law and to ensure that any new national security legislation conforms with the ICCPR and is passed via an inclusive and transparent legislative process.
Impact on Democratic Institutions and Universal Suffrage
During the covered period, PRC and Hong Kong authorities deliberately acted to restrict the ability of Hong Kong voters to elect representatives of their choosing, and PRC officials played an unprecedented role in directing the outcome of the Hong Kong elections. In May 2022, John Lee was the sole candidate for Chief Executive of Hong Kong after the PRC central government indicated that it would not support any other nominations. Only the 1,500 members of the Hong Kong Election Committee, a body consisting almost entirely of Beijing loyalists, were eligible to vote on Lee’s candidacy, despite provisions in the Basic Law that describe the election of the Chief Executive via universal suffrage as the “ultimate aim.”
Pro-Beijing lawmakers occupied all but one of the 90 seats in the Legislative Council during the covered period, after electoral changes in 2021 drastically reduced the number of seats filled by direct election and required all candidates running for the Council to receive the approval of the Beijing-dominated Hong Kong Election Committee. Hong Kong authorities took no actions during this period to advance the election of all members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage, which, as with the election of the Chief Executive, the Basic Law also describes as its “ultimate aim.” Activists and local media reported that since the electoral changes, the Legislative Council has become less responsive to public input, particularly from marginalized and underrepresented groups.
Impact on Police and Security Functions
Hong Kong authorities used the NSL, which the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) imposed on Hong Kong in June 2020, to conduct politically motivated arrests and prosecutions against people and groups expressing views critical of the PRC or Hong Kong authorities or affiliated with the pro-democracy movement. During the covered period, based on publicly available information, authorities arrested at least 38 people in connection with alleged offenses that Hong Kong authorities designated as involving “national security,” including pursuant to the colonial-era statute on “sedition” and the offenses listed in the NSL (secession, subversion, terrorist activities, and collusion with a foreign country or external elements to endanger national security). According to open source reports, authorities filed charges against at least 13 individuals in connection with alleged “national security”-designated offenses. During the covered period, at least eight individuals were found guilty of violating the NSL or the sedition statute at trial, and none were acquitted, while at least 30 individuals pled guilty to violating the NSL or the sedition statute. In addition, 31 of the 47 politicians and activists charged with conspiracy to commit subversion for their involvement in the July 2020 unofficial pan-democratic primary election indicated that they plan to plead guilty to that charge. With few exceptions, the individuals arrested and prosecuted were exercising freedoms guaranteed in the Basic Law and recognized in the ICCPR.
The NSL grants the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) broad authorities to conduct wiretaps, electronic surveillance, and searches without warrants in national security-related cases, and to require internet service providers to provide or delete information relevant to these cases. During the covered period there were credible reports that PRC security services and the Office of Safeguarding National Security (OSNS) monitored pro-democracy and human rights activists and journalists in Hong Kong.
During the UN Human Rights Committee’s periodic review of Hong Kong’s compliance with its obligations under the ICCPR in July 2022, the experts on the committee wrote that they are “deeply concerned” that the NSL prevails over Hong Kong local laws and thus “overrides fundamental rights and freedoms protected by the Covenant.” They also wrote that the committee is “deeply concerned about the overly broad interpretation of and arbitrary application” of the NSL. The committee urged Hong Kong and PRC authorities to repeal the NSL and Hong Kong’s sedition law and to ensure that any new national security legislation conforms with the ICCPR and is passed via an inclusive and transparent legislative process.
Impact on Judicial Independence and the Rule of Law
The Sino-British Joint Declaration, as well as Hong Kong’s Basic Law, provide for an independent judiciary, but during the covered period PRC and Hong Kong authorities repeatedly took actions that eroded the judiciary’s independence and ability to uphold the rule of law in cases that Hong Kong authorities designated as involving national security.
The NSL states the NPCSC — not Hong Kong courts — has the power to interpret the NSL, and any such interpretations are not subject to review in Hong Kong’s courts. In November 2022, Chief Executive John Lee requested the NPCSC to issue an inaugural interpretation addressing whether defendants in national security-related cases may be represented by foreign lawyers not ordinarily licensed to practice in Hong Kong. Commentators described Lee’s request as intended to overturn Hong Kong courts’ decisions that Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai was entitled to be represented in his upcoming trial for alleged “foreign collusion” by UK-based lawyer Timothy Owen. In December 2022, the NPCSC issued an interpretation stating that the Chief Executive has the authority to issue “certificates” designating whether any act involves national security or any evidence involves state secrets, and that the Committee on Safeguarding National Security (a body established by the NSL that is chaired by the Chief Executive and reports directly to Beijing) can make “judgments and decisions” on issues related to national security that are not subject to judicial review. The interpretation effectively empowers the Hong Kong executive branch to overturn or preempt judicial decisions related to national security, which experts noted can include topics such as finance, culture, or energy.
In 2021, the Hong Kong government removed defendants’ right to choose their own legal counsel in cases where they receive government-funded legal aid. Instead, the Hong Kong Legal Aid Department assigns lawyers to these cases. Activists reported that the changes could lead defendants in these cases to be represented by lawyers who do not specialize in the issues at stake in the case or who may be susceptible to influence from Hong Kong authorities. Some defendants in NSL cases reportedly declined legal aid during the covered period for this reason, instead paying to hire their own lawyers or choosing to represent themselves.
Under the NSL, defendants charged with national security-related offenses may not be granted bail unless a judge has sufficient grounds to believe the defendant or suspect will not continue to commit acts endangering national security. This is a higher standard than in normal criminal cases, with the burden shifted onto the defendant. A report from the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown Law School described this standard as “an impossibly high bar that most defendants cannot overcome,” while a report from the UK-based organization Hong Kong Watch found that approximately three quarters of the individuals charged with these offenses since 2020 were denied bail. Under this higher threshold for bail, many defendants charged under the NSL remain in custody months or years after their initial detention. In several cases during the covered period, pro-democracy activists were denied bail and detained for longer than the maximum sentence of the charge for which they were accused. Some human rights groups called pre-trial detention in national security-designated cases a “form of indefinite detention without trial.”
Local authorities implemented an NSL provision requiring that the Hong Kong Chief Executive establish a list of judges to handle any cases concerning national security-related offenses. Although Hong Kong’s judiciary selects the specific judge(s) from this list to hear any individual case, legal scholars argued this unprecedented involvement of the Chief Executive weakens Hong Kong’s judicial independence. During the covered period, Hong Kong authorities continued to refuse to disclose the membership of this list of judges or the criteria under which they were selected.
Under the NSL, Hong Kong authorities may direct that a panel of three specially designated national security judges will hear a case instead of a jury. During the covered period, the Hong Kong Secretary for Justice ordered that at least three such national security-related cases be heard in front of such a panel instead of a jury. These include the cases of the 47 politicians and activists charged with subversion for their involvement in the 2020 unofficial pan-democratic primary election; of Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai; and of three former leaders of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, which organized the city’s formerly annual June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre vigil with the permission and consent of the Hong Kong government.
The NSL provision that authorizes the Office for Safeguarding National Security to exercise jurisdiction over a case and for the Supreme People’s Court in mainland China to designate a court to adjudicate it was not used during the covered period.
During the covered period, two local media outlets that act under the direction of the PRC central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong targeted lawyers for alleged connections to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, including for representing prominent activists in court. In April 2022, human rights lawyer Michael Vidler departed Hong Kong after these newspapers in Hong Kong accused him of being a “black hand anti-China lawyer.” Vidler subsequently told the media that he saw the reports as a “call to action by the national security police.” In multiple cases since the imposition of the NSL, following reports of this type, Hong Kong police have arrested the targets of the accusations.
Impact on Freedom of Speech or Expression
Hong Kong law provides protections for freedom of speech, but the government arrested and prosecuted individuals under the NSL or sedition law for speech critical of the PRC or local governments or their policies, including on social media. Hong Kong officials characterized this type of speech as “inciting hatred against the government” or “promoting feelings of ill will or enmity between different classes.” During the covered period, individuals were charged with sedition for merely forwarding social media posts containing slogans related to the 2019 pro-democracy protest movement, including “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times,” which prosecutors argued contained an inherent meaning of support for Hong Kong independence.
In July 2022, activist Koo Sze-yiu was convicted of “attempted sedition” for planning to stage a protest against the Beijing Winter Olympics outside the PRC central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong. During Koo’s trial, prosecutors argued that Koo had brought “hatred and contempt” against the PRC and Hong Kong governments. The presiding judge sentenced Koo to nine months in prison, ruling that slogans critical of the NSL that Koo planned to use during the protest could “weaken people’s confidence in the judicial administration.”
In October 2022, a court convicted two people of sedition for disrupting the proceedings in a January 2022 court hearing by applauding the defendant in that case. One of those two people, Protestant pastor Garry Pang, was convicted of a second charge of sedition for uploading videos to YouTube between 2020 and 2022 in which he commented on proceedings in Hong Kong’s courts. Pang was sentenced to twelve months in prison for the two charges.
Hong Kong legislation also prohibits acts deemed to abuse or desecrate the PRC flag or anthem, including acts online, as well as inciting others not to vote in elections or to cast blank ballots. During the covered period, the Hong Kong government regularly arrested and prosecuted individuals under this legislation. For example, in November 2022, an individual was sentenced to three months in prison after pleading guilty to insulting the anthem. In December 2022, an individual was given a two-month suspended prison sentence for sharing a Facebook post from an overseas activist calling for voters in the December 2021 Legislative Council election to submit blank ballots.
Hong Kong authorities also arrested and prosecuted individuals for publishing books that they claimed included “seditious content.” In September 2022, a court sentenced five leaders of the now-dissolved General Union of Speech Therapists to 19 months in prison for publishing a series of children’s picture books that purportedly referred to the 2019-2020 protest movement. Prosecutors claimed that the books were an attempt to “infiltrate [children’s minds with] seditious ideology,” and officials earlier accused the books of “poisoning” children against the local and central governments. In January 2023, police arrested six people on suspicion of sedition for allegedly publishing and selling a book about the 2019-2020 protest movement.
In July 2022, local media reported that the annual Hong Kong Book Fair, organized by the government’s trade promotion body, did not allow three independent publishers, who published content about the city’s pro-democracy movement, to participate. The publishers claimed the decision was politically motivated. According to media reports, the book fair did not contain any books discussing sensitive topics, including Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests or the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Under Hong Kong law, authorities can revoke a film’s license if it is “found to be contrary to national security interests.” Those who present an unlicensed film are liable for up to three years’ imprisonment. In August 2022, Hong Kong’s Office for Film, Newspaper, and Article Administration denied public screening permission to a short film, Losing Sight of a Longed Place, containing a brief scene showing a protest during Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Movement.
Impact on Freedom of the Press
The Basic Law provides for freedom of the press, which is also guaranteed under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, but PRC and Hong Kong authorities repeatedly violated this freedom. Hong Kong authorities targeted media that expressed views or reported news it construed as not pro-government. A poll jointly conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute, an independent polling firm, and the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) found that 97 percent of respondents said press freedom had gotten “much worse” in the past year, with “the government” cited by 93 percent of respondents as the cause. Reporters Without Borders ranked press freedom in Hong Kong in 2022 at 148 out of 180 countries and territories assessed, dropping from 80 out of 180 in 2021. Reports of media self-censorship and suspected content control continued.
Hong Kong authorities continued the prosecution of former editors and executives of now-closed independent media outlets Apple Daily and Stand News under Hong Kong’s sedition law, and also prosecuted Jimmy Lai and other former Apple Daily executives and editors under the NSL. During the trial of two former Stand News editors in December 2022 and January 2023, prosecutors argued that the newspaper committed sedition by publishing articles about and commentaries by prominent pro-democracy political figures, including candidates in the 2020 unofficial pan-democratic primary election and former lawmakers now in exile overseas. One of the defendants, former Stand News chief editor Chung Pui-kuen, testified that the media outlet included articles featuring both pro-Beijing and pro-democracy viewpoints. Chung argued that the media had the responsibility to cover newsworthy events like the 2020 unofficial pan-democratic primary election, even if the election was later “criminalized.” The trial continued through the end of the covered period.
During the covered period, six former Apple Daily executives pled guilty to sedition and collusion with foreign forces, an offense under the NSL, while Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai pled not guilty. Lai’s trial on the sedition and collusion charges is scheduled to begin in September 2023. In August 2022, in preliminary motions related to these charges, a court ruled that police may search the content of two of Lai’s mobile phones. Lai had argued that the mobile phones contained journalistic materials, which are protected under Hong Kong law, but the court ruled that the NSL grants police additional powers to investigate offenses that overrule local law. An appeals court affirmed the ruling.
In October 2022, Lai was convicted of two counts of fraud related to a lease agreement for office space and was subsequently sentenced to five years and nine months in prison. Pro-democracy activists described the prosecution as part of a harassment campaign by Hong Kong authorities and noted that Lai’s alleged offense, subletting a small amount of office space, would historically have been resolved through civil courts or with a small fine rather than a prison sentence. In January 2023, Lai’s company Next Digital, the parent company of Apple Daily, was delisted from the Hong Kong Stock Exchange after Hong Kong authorities earlier froze the company’s assets using the NSL and ordered it liquidated.
In December 2022, a freelance journalist was sentenced to 15 months in prison for “possession of offensive weapons” (i.e., a multipurpose knife and laser pointer) after being arrested while filming a protest in November 2019 on assignment for a Taiwan-based media outlet.
PRC and Hong Kong officials, as well as Beijing-controlled media, repeatedly criticized the HKJA during the covered period and accused the organization of potential NSL violations. In April 2022, the HKJA held a special meeting to discuss the possibility of disbanding, citing growing safety concerns for the association and its members. The International Federation of Journalists released the Hong Kong Freedom of Expression Report in October 2022. This assessment of press freedom was previously published by the HKJA. In September 2022, police arrested HKJA chairperson Ronson Chan and charged him with obstructing police officers. Two plainclothes police officers reportedly asked Chan to show his identity card while he was reporting on a story. Chan allegedly asked to see their badges, after which the police arrested him.
Three political cartoonists emigrated from Hong Kong between April and June 2022, publicly citing concerns that the authorities might arrest them for their work. Several political commentators left their positions or Hong Kong entirely during the covered period, citing NSL-related fears. Local media reported in November 2022 that the Trust Project, an international group promoting greater accountability and transparency in news, froze its Hong Kong operations citing Hong Kong’s difficult environment for news. In October 2022, local media reported that two reporters and an editor resigned from a high-profile English-language daily in 2021 following the decision by senior executives to ax a multi-part series on human rights violations in the PRC’s Xinjiang region.
In April 2022, for the first time in 26 years, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong (FCC) announced the suspension of its annual Human Rights Press Awards to avoid potential legal liability under the NSL. Media reported that Stand News would have received prizes at the ceremony. The Hong Kong government described an October 2022 FCC board statement expressing concern about the arrest of HKJA chairperson Ronson Chan as “slander.” In November 2022, the Hong Kong government renewed the FCC’s lease for its current premises, but added new clauses related to “national security” that if violated threaten to terminate the lease.
In June 2022, investigative online news outlet FactWire announced its closure, becoming the tenth Hong Kong news outlet to close since the imposition of the NSL. FactWire cited the “great change” for Hong Kong media in recent years as the reason for its closure.
During the covered period, Hong Kong authorities sent hundreds of complaint letters to foreign news outlets. These letters cited the outlets’ articles and editorials about the Hong Kong government, the NSL, and major events in Hong Kong. Often under the name of the Chief Executive or other high-level officials, the letters characterized the reporting and editorials as “grossly biased” or as containing “groundless accusations.”
As noted in previous reports, the Department of State has no information indicating Hong Kong agents, persons, or entities were involved in the extrajudicial surveillance, abduction, detention, or forced confessions of certain booksellers and journalists.
Impact on Internet Freedoms
Hong Kong authorities did not generally disrupt open access to the Internet, but there were numerous reports that Hong Kong authorities, exercising powers granted by the NSL, required private companies to block access to certain websites, provide user information, and remove political content. For example, in October 2022, authorities blocked access from within Hong Kong to the website of the U.S.-based Hong Kong Democracy Council.
While internet access remained widespread and generally open, local authorities charged individuals who engaged in online political speech, and otherwise deterred free speech online and in electronic communications. The NSL and its implementing regulations grant extensive powers to police to order the blocking and removal of content by message publishers, platform service providers, hosting service providers, and network service providers. Police can also intercept communications or conduct covert surveillance upon approval of the Chief Executive. When investigating NSL violations, police may also require a person who published information or opinions or the relevant service provider to provide information on the end users. In July 2022, the League of Social Democrats, a pro-democracy opposition party, announced that “under great pressure, [it] was forced to delete online posts that were allegedly violating the National Security Law.”
In August 2022, police arrested two administrators of the “Civil Servant Secrets” Facebook page on suspicion of violating the sedition law by publishing posts on the page that “promote feelings of ill-will and enmity.” Following the arrests, local media reported that at least eight similar Facebook pages, which allowed employees of certain government agencies or students at certain universities to post anonymously, shut down for fear of similar arrests. Local experts described the arrests as reinforcing self-censorship among Hong Kong residents. Local authorities also arrested and prosecuted individuals for sedition because of messages on social media (see above), including Facebook, Telegram, and other platforms.
Under Hong Kong anti-doxing laws, local officials have the authority to fine online platforms that do not comply with user information or content takedown orders and to arrest their Hong Kong-based staff.
In December 2022, Hong Kong officials requested that Google manipulate its search results for the phrase “Hong Kong national anthem” to place the PRC anthem ahead of the 2019 pro-democracy protest song “Glory to Hong Kong,” indicating that there could be legal consequences for Google if it did not comply. At the time of writing this report, Google had not complied. Similarly, in May, Hong Kong officials discussed a complete ban on Telegram, an electronic messaging application that was popular among pro-democracy activists, following the sentencing of an administrator of a pro-democracy Telegram group to 6.5 years. As of the end of the covered period, Hong Kong officials had taken no public actions against Google or Telegram.
In December 2022, the Hong Kong government launched a three-month public consultation on crowdfunding regulations that would require all crowdfunding campaigns to receive prior government approval. Hong Kong prodemocracy groups and activists have relied on crowdfunding to support their activities and for protest-related legal and medical expenses. In October 2022, an online radio host reached a plea agreement of 2 years and 8 months along with an over 600,000 USD asset seizure, for charges that included multiple counts of money laundering based on his calls to support crowdfunding efforts to provide for protestors’ living expenses.
Impact on Freedom of Assembly
Hong Kong law provides for protection of freedom of assembly, but Hong Kong authorities violated this right during the covered period, especially for individuals and organizations associated with the pro-democracy movement. Under Hong Kong law, organizers of public meetings and demonstrations are required to apply for a “letter of no objection” from police, but the police did not issue any such letters to groups not affiliated with the PRC or Hong Kong governments during the covered period, effectively banning all protests. Authorities cited COVID-19 restrictions to refuse authorization for assemblies, although civil rights organizations said the intent of the denials was aimed at preventing political gatherings rather than promoting public health.
According to media reports, no NGO applied to hold a public protest at least through October 2022. No organization applied to hold a public event to commemorate the June 4 anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Police arrested at least six people on June 4, 2022, in what media described as an effort to thwart attempts to commemorate the event.
Hong Kong authorities continued to prosecute activists, opposition politicians, and individuals for their involvement in the 2019 pro-democracy protest movement. As of October 2022, authorities arrested 10,279 individuals since 2019 in relation to the protests, according to Hong Kong government statistics, of which 2,915 had completed judicial proceedings and 1,391 were convicted. Activists argued that many of those convicted of crimes like rioting, unlawful assembly, or possession of offensive weapons were not themselves involved in violence but were merely prosecuted because of their attire and presence at protests that later turned violent. In December 2022, Hong Kong Secretary for Security Chris Tang said that Hong Kong police had almost concluded investigations regarding about 6,000 people arrested but not charged in relation to the protests and would inform them “within weeks” whether they would be charged. As of the end of the covered period, Hong Kong authorities had not made any further announcements regarding this group.
In December 2022, an appeals court overturned the conviction of Chow Hang-tung, the former vice chair of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, for inciting others to commemorate the anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre in 2021. The court ruled that police erred in prohibiting the 2021 assembly without considering whether it could permit the assembly by imposing conditions to protect public health. Hong Kong authorities appealed the ruling.
In June 2022, the chairwoman of the League of Social Democrats, a pro-democracy opposition party, told media that police warned at least six league members not to hold any protest activities on July 1, 2022 — the 25th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to the PRC. The league subsequently announced it would not hold any protests on July 1.
Impact on Freedom of Association
PRC and Hong Kong authorities disregarded freedom of association as enshrined in the Basic Law and the ICCPR. PRC and Hong Kong authorities continued to use threats, investigations, arrests, asset freezes, and other actions to force the closure of groups they deemed a “national security” concern for their involvement in the pro-democracy movement. A June 2022 Amnesty International report stated that nearly 100 civil society organizations disbanded or relocated since the imposition of the NSL. Many groups cited increasing legal risks following the imposition of the NSL.
Hong Kong authorities continued to use the NSL, the Societies Ordinance, and the Trade Union Ordinance to repress independent unions and other civil society groups. During the covered period, according to Amnesty International, the government’s Registrar of Trade Unions reportedly conducted investigations into at least four labor unions and professional associations, including the Hong Kong Journalists Association and the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance, as to whether their activities were in line with the Trade Union Ordinance and the unions’ constitutions. In June 2022, the Hospital Authority Employees Alliance announced it would disband, stating that it faced “political opposition.” In September 2022, the Registrar of Trade Unions announced that any newly registered unions must declare that they will not engage in any acts or activities that “may endanger national security.”
Under the regulations implementing the NSL, Hong Kong police may require any group that is considered a “foreign agent” to provide information on its activities, personnel, and finances, with a maximum prison sentence of six months for failure to comply. During the covered period, Hong Kong authorities prosecuted three former leaders of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China for failing to comply with a notice to provide this information. Prosecutors maintained that the Alliance was a “foreign agent” because it either gave to or received funds from at least six foreign organizations and individuals. The former leaders argued that the Hong Kong Alliance was not a foreign agent and so had no obligation to comply. Chow Hang-tung, the former vice chair of the Hong Kong Alliance and one of the defendants in the case, pointed out that the funds it received from one of these foreign organizations was used to purchase a property to house a now-closed museum on the June 4 Tiananmen Square massacre and amounted to a quarter of one percent of the money used for the purchase. The court is scheduled to issue a verdict in the case in March 2023.
In May 2022, acting under the NSL, police arrested the five former trustees of the now-dissolved 612 Humanitarian Fund, which provided financial and legal assistance to individuals arrested or injured during the 2019 pro-democracy protests, on suspicion of conspiracy to collude with foreign powers under the NSL, and for failing to register the fund as a “society” under Hong Kong’s Societies Ordinance. The five included former lawmakers Margaret Ng and Cyd Ho, prominent activist Denise Ho, academic Hui Po-keung, and retired Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong Joseph Cardinal Zen. They and the fund’s former secretary were subsequently found guilty and fined approximately $500 each for violating the Societies Ordinance, which their lawyers for the defendants argued was an unconstitutional infringement on their right to association. In December 2022, the five filed an appeal against their convictions. They have not been formally charged with conspiracy to collude with foreign powers but remain under investigation and unable to travel without court approval.
Beijing-controlled media outlets in Hong Kong regularly accused organizations, including political parties and civil society groups, of being “anti-China” or violating the NSL because of their political opinions. In July 2022, these media outlets accused the opposition Democratic Party of planning to use a fundraising gala to spread “anti-China messages.” In August 2022, they accused 11 environmental organizations of supporting protesters during the 2019 prodemocracy protests.
In July 2022, Hong Kong government officials refused to state if Hong Kong-based civil society organizations could be prosecuted under the NSL for participation in the UN Human Rights Committee’s periodic review of Hong Kong’s compliance with the ICCPR.
Impact on Freedom of Movement
Hong Kong law provides for freedom of movement, including internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and voluntary return, but during the covered period the government restricted this right for certain individuals. Hong Kong law enforcement nevertheless continued to use a provision of the NSL to seize travel documents from democracy activists and opposition politicians arrested under the NSL, even without filing charges.
According to local media reports, Hong Kong authorities maintain an exit ban “watchlist” of residents who will be intercepted if they attempt to leave Hong Kong. In May 2022, police arrested cultural studies scholar Hui Po-keung, a former trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Fund, as Hui was preparing to leave the city.
There were reports that authorities denied entry to individuals based on perceived links to the 2019 pro-democracy protests, international human rights organizations, or journalists seen as critical of the Hong Kong government. In December 2022, Hong Kong authorities denied entry to a Japanese freelance photographer who had previously hosted an exhibition of photographs taken during Hong Kong’s 2019 prodemocracy protests. The photographer stated that immigration authorities interrogated her about the exhibition before denying her entry to Hong Kong.
Impact on Education and Academic Freedom
During the covered period, Hong Kong authorities, under direction from the PRC, continued to restrict political expression in schools and universities and to threaten or penalize teachers and academics who expressed dissenting opinions.
In accordance with the NSL, the Hong Kong Education Bureau has implemented a national security education curriculum at all grade levels in government-funded schools, as well as, to a lesser extent, in international and private schools. Under Education Bureau guidelines, schools are required to prevent and suppress any curriculum and activities that are in breach of the NSL, the Basic Law, or other Hong Kong law; to limit political expression and activities on school campuses; and to support periodic reports regarding their implementation of “national security education.” In October 2022, fourteen high school students were suspended for three days for allegedly disrespecting the national anthem and PRC flag during a flag-raising ceremony. In December 2022, the Education Bureau published new guidelines for primary and secondary school teachers that bars them from encouraging speech that “violates the social order” and from promoting “biased values,” and requires teachers to have a “correct understanding” of the NSL.
As of the 2022-2023 academic year, all eight publicly funded universities in Hong Kong require undergraduate students, including international students, to complete mandatory “national security” courses to graduate, according to government documents. At least three private universities will also require the courses.
Public libraries, schools, and universities culled their holdings, including archives, to comply with the NSL. For example, in June 2022, media reported that several public high schools removed books from their libraries after the Hong Kong Education Bureau requested school authorities to review books that might violate the NSL. The University of Hong Kong required library users to register to access “politically sensitive” books.
Impact on Freedom of Religion or Belief
Hong Kong authorities generally respected freedom of religion or belief. During the covered period, most religious leaders and advocates stated the NSL did not negatively impact religious practitioners’ ability to worship in line with their religious norms and without government interference. However, religious leaders reported that they increasingly practice self-censorship, including by avoiding political topics in their sermons and not appointing clergy deemed to be critical of the government. Multiple Catholic Church leaders, including Bishop Stephen Chow, said the space for freedom of expression in Hong Kong was “diminishing.” In May 2022, the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong announced that no Catholic Churches in the city would hold memorial masses for the victims of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, citing concerns that the masses could violate the NSL. This was the first time since 1989 that no Catholic church in Hong Kong held such a memorial mass.
Hong Kong authorities arrested and prosecuted religious leaders for activities and nonviolent political expression related to the prodemocracy movement. In October 2022, Protestant pastor Garry Pang was convicted of violating the sedition law and sentenced to twelve months in prison (see above). In November 2022, former Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen was convicted of violating Hong Kong’s Societies Ordinance for his role as a trustee of the now-dissolved 612 Humanitarian Fund and fined about $500. Some religious leaders, including Zen himself, described these arrests as connected to these individuals’ political activities rather than their religious roles. However, activists and other religious figures expressed fears that the arrests could further discourage religious leaders and organizations from speaking out on political issues.
Impact on U.S.-Hong Kong Exchanges
U.S. institutions conduct a wide range of academic, cultural, educational, and scientific exchanges with Hong Kong counterparts. The COVID-19 pandemic paused most international programs on Hong Kong campuses as well as in-person, ECA-funded exchange programs with Hong Kong. International exchange programs have resumed on almost all Hong Kong campuses in the 2022-2023 school year and for many ECA-funded exchange programs.
Impact on U.S. Citizens
In 2021, an estimated 85,000 U.S. citizens lived in Hong Kong. However, that number is now estimated to be approximately 70,000. U.S. citizens departed Hong Kong in 2022 due to a variety of factors including COVID-19 mitigation policies and, for some teachers, the national security education policies that led to restrictions on academic freedom. Non-residents were not generally permitted to visit Hong Kong for much of 2022 due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Once travel resumed, however, some U.S. citizens with ties to people or organizations that have been critical of the Hong Kong or PRC central governments were held and questioned by immigration authorities upon entering Hong Kong regarding their local contacts. Since the imposition of the NSL in June 2020, the PRC increasingly exercised police and security power in Hong Kong, subjecting U.S. citizens who are publicly critical of the PRC to a heightened risk of arrest, detention, expulsion, or prosecution in Hong Kong. The Department of State has highlighted these risks to U.S. citizens in its travel advisories for Hong Kong. In January 2021, the HKPF arrested a U.S. citizen under the NSL, though he has not been detained or formally charged.
U.S.-Hong Kong Cooperation and Agreements
The United States and Hong Kong continue to maintain several bilateral agreements regarding issues such as taxation, parcel delivery, and air transportation services. In 2020, Hong Kong authorities notified the U.S. government of their purported suspension of an agreement concerning mutual legal assistance in criminal affairs. Subsequent official requests that the U.S. government made for mutual legal assistance under the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and UN Convention against Corruption have had no success during the covered period, and the U.S. government made no new requests under these conventions during the covered period. U.S. law enforcement had no engagement with the HKPF National Security Department, but U.S. law enforcement agencies continued to cooperate with other Hong Kong law enforcement counterparts to counter trafficking in persons, trade fraud, wildlife trafficking, child exploitation, drug trafficking, IPR theft, financial crimes, money laundering, and international terrorism.
The United States communicated with Hong Kong authorities through demarches and notifications on issues involving sanctions implementation, including actions taken by the Department of the Treasury against several Hong Kong-registered entities under sanctions authorities related to China and counterterrorism. In October 2022, Chief Executive John Lee told international media that Hong Kong would only implement UN sanctions, not “unilateral” sanctions such as U.S. designations.
Actions Taken by the U.S. Government
Since the imposition of the NSL, the U.S. government has imposed financial sanctions on 42 PRC and Hong Kong officials under E.O. 13936, 39 of whom were identified pursuant to section 5(a) of the Hong Kong Autonomy Act (HKAA) in connection with actions or policies that threaten the peace, security, stability, or autonomy of Hong Kong. Under Section 7 of the E.O., those designated for financial sanctions and their immediate family members are also subject to visa restrictions. The U.S. government did not impose sanctions on any new individuals under these authorities during the covered period. However, on December 9, on the eve of the UN Human Rights Day, the Department of Treasury designated a Hong Kong-based PRC citizen, Zhuo Xinrong, as well as Hong Kong-based companies under his control, for serious human rights abuses related to illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. On September 29, the Department of Treasury also sanctioned an international network of companies involved in facilitating financial transfers and shipping of Iranian petroleum and petrochemical products, including several front companies in Hong Kong.
In January 2023, President Biden directed the extension of Deferred Enforced Departure for Hong Kong residents physically present in the United States for another two years.
At various times during the covered period, in response to PRC and Hong Kong authorities’ actions, the United States issued statements, often with likeminded partners, raising concerns and calling for those authorities to respect Hong Kong’s promised high degree of autonomy. In July 2022, the Department of State released its annual Investment Climate Statement for Hong Kong, which highlighted the increased risks to U.S. business operations and activities as a result of the PRC’s actions to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and rule of law. The Department of Commerce also highlighted these risks in its 2022 Country Commercial Guide.
Officials from the U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong and Macau regularly attended court hearings and trials of defendants charged with offenses designated as involving “national security.” The U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong and Macau maintains a list, based on publicly available sources, of all individuals and organizations in Hong Kong arrested, charged, or found guilty in connection with offenses designated as involving “national security.”
Areas of Remaining Autonomy
Even though the PRC took repeated actions to erode the rights and freedoms it promised for Hong Kong under the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration, there remained some differences between Hong Kong and mainland China, including in the areas of internet access, freedom of religion, and freedom of association.
Hong Kong continued to exercise authority in the implementation of commercial agreements and practiced free and open trade, with negligible tariff or non-tariff barriers. The Hong Kong legal system continued to be based on common-law traditions, though the continued enforcement of the NSL, as well as the NPCSC’s December 2022 interpretation of the NSL, raised serious concerns about the judicial system’s continued independence. Property rights were well-protected in law and practice. Hong Kong maintained its own currency, pegged to the U.S. dollar. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority set monetary policy autonomously from the People’s Bank of China, and Hong Kong’s financial regulators continue to act independently from their mainland China counterparts.
Hong Kong sets its own data regulations and does not have any broad data localization requirements. Under mainland China’s cross-border data transfer requirements, Hong Kong is considered outside of China and is treated the same as foreign jurisdictions.
Hong Kong appears to have wide latitude in setting policies on climate and green finance and the city has set climate disclosure requirements that are stricter than mainland China’s and aligned with international best practices.
Hong Kong continues to have a separate vote from mainland China in a number of international organizations and multilateral entities, including the Financial Action Task Force, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, the International Olympic Committee, and the World Trade Organization, and participates autonomously in various green finance multilateral fora. The extent to which PRC authorities influence Hong Kong votes and actions is unclear.
Since December 23, 2020, the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) has reviewed transactions involving Hong Kong under the same export control policy as any other PRC destination. Between April 1, 2022, and February 1, 2023, BIS identified and designated 14 entities located in Hong Kong that provided support for a foreign military acting contrary to U.S. foreign policy and national security. As a result, a BIS license is required for certain exports, reexports, and in-country transfers when a party has knowledge that a military end user is a party to the transaction (e.g., as purchaser, intermediate consignee, ultimate consignee, or end user).
Hong Kong Policy Act Findings
In July 2020, then-President Trump issued E.O. 13936, which addressed the suspension of the application of Section 201(a) of the Hong Kong Policy Act to certain U.S. laws. E.O. 13936 remains in effect. There were no terminations under section 202(d) or determinations under section 201(b) of the Act during the covered period.