Hong Kong’s freedom score down due to Beijing’s influence: US-based report

Rights watchdog Freedom House cites the missing booksellers case and Legco’s oath row

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 February, 2017, 12:10pm
UPDATED : Friday, 03 February, 2017, 6:13am

Beijing’s creeping influence on Hong Kong’s political, civil and economic affairs has taken a toll on the territory’s latest global score for freedom, according to an annual report by Washington-based rights watchdog, Freedom House.

The Freedom in the World 2017 report cited “Beijing’s encroachment on freedoms” as a key driver of a downward trend in Hong Kong, reflected in cases such as the disappearance of five booksellers in 2015, the recent oath-taking saga in the legislature and mounting pressures on media and academic independence.

The report gave Hong Kong an aggregate score of 61 out of 100 this year – with 0 being the least free and 100 as the freest – which was two points down from last year’s score of 63.

The city’s score for political rights and civil liberties remained unchanged at 5 out of 7 and 2 out of 7 respectively on a scale of 1 being the freest and 7 as the least free.

The overall freedom rating of Hong Kong was 3.5 out of 7 – classified as “partly free”.

The booksellers’ case involved individuals who disappeared from the city only to surface on the mainland in custody. They were known for publishing and distributing material critical of the central government. The report said the incident raised concerns about Hong Kong’s civil liberties and rule of law.

“The case … suggested that [Hong Kong] residents were vulnerable to punishment in the mainland’s politically controlled justice system for actions taken at home,” the non-governmental organisation said.

Also highlighted was Beijing’s move last year to interpret the Basic Law – Hong Kong’s mini-constitution – while the city’s court was still considering the case to disqualify two localist lawmakers-elect – Youngspiration’s Yau Wai-ching and Sixtus Baggio Leung Chung-hang – for altering their oaths in protest for independence.

The territory’s authorities had also refused to register a new pro-independence political party, invalidated the nominations of six localist candidates in the September elections due to their views on self-determination and were now also challenging the validity of four seated lawmakers’ oaths, the report said.

“The people of Hong Kong, a special administrative region of China, have traditionally enjoyed substantial civil liberties and the rule of law under their local constitution, the Basic Law,” the report’s overview read.

“However, the chief executive and half of the Legislative Council are chosen through indirect electoral systems that favour pro-Beijing figures, and the territory’s freedoms and autonomy have come under threat in recent years due to growing political and economic pressure from the mainland.”

Citing press freedom advocates, the NGO also drew attention to growing “pro-Beijing pressure” on journalistic expression and media owners “encouraging self-censorship to favour the central government’s interests”.

As for the rest of the world, the report warned of populist and nationalist forces making significant gains in democratic states categorised as “free”, particularly the United States, with the rise of Donald Trump.

A total of 67 countries suffered net declines in political rights and freedoms compared to 36 that saw gains.

Mainland China, classified as “not free”, scored just 15 out of 100 in a continuous downward trend in freedom due to clampdowns on cybersecurity and foreign NGO laws, increased internet surveillance, and lengthy prison sentences for human rights lawyers, activists, and religious believers.

“A renewed push for party supremacy and ideological conformity has undermined rule of law ... and curtailed civil and political rights,” the report said.

“China’s budding civil society and human rights movements have struggled in the midst of a multi-year crackdown.”