This article gives a brief account of how freedom of expression, though granted by China’s constitution, in effect has fallen victim to the principle of Rule by law. Furthermore, a discussion is provided that details how the same violation of basic human rights is now practiced in Hong Kong. At the end an argument is given for all to take notice of the crushing of civil liberties in Hong Kong.
Article 35 of the 1982 Constitution proclaims that “citizens of the People’s Republic of China enjoy “freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession, and of demonstration.”
In reality, freedom of speech is an illusion for most who criticize how Beijing imposes its totalitarian rule in China. Other laws take precedence:
I “Picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (similar to Norwegian ‘ordensforstyrrelse’)
This is a crime that is frequently used in China in order to curb free speech. Two examples:
- In March 2015, feminists were preparing to distribute stickers with information about gender equality and sexual harassment, such as men groping women on crowded trains and buses. Dozens were arrested on 6 March, five were detained on suspicion of “Picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. They were interrogated daily, until their release after 37 days, following international outcry, including condemnation from Hillary Clinton.
- In December 2020 Zhang Zhan was sentenced to four years in prison for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”. She was a citizen journalist who was arrested in May 2020 after reporting on the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan.
II “Inciting subversion of state power” (similar to Norwegian ‘undergraving av samfunnssikkerhet’)
The practice of law in China is “rule by law”, not “rule of law”. There is no separation between the country and its dictatorial rulers. You cannot criticize the Chinese Communist Party without simultaneously being seen as turning on your own country. This is how the crime of subversion is applied. Two examples:
- On 8 December 2008 Liu Xiaobo was detained due to his participation with the Charter 08 manifesto. He was formally arrested on 23 June the following year on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power”, was tried on the same charges on 23 December and sentenced to eleven years‘ imprisonment.
- In February 2020 civil rights activist Xu Zhiyong publicly asked Xi Jinping to resign, for what he described as an obvious inability to handle the COVID-19 pandemic. In June 2021 a subsidiary organization of the World Organisation Against Torture and the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) accused Chinese authorities for applying “torture and ill-treatment” while Xu was in detention. He was indicted on a charge of “subversion” in August 2021, and put on trial in June this year. It is not known if there has yet been a sentence.
Article 27 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution which came into effect with the transition to mainland rule in 1997, states that “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions, and to strike.”
For many years freedom of speech in Hong Kong was very similar to freedom of speech in Norway. However, in later years the situation deteriorated until the freedoms were in effect removed when the National Security Law entered into effect in July 2020.
A bookstore which specialized in books that were critical to the leaders in Beijing, and books with gossip about the leadership was popular with visiting tourists from the mainland. In 2015, several of the owners were kidnapped and taken to the mainland. One of them was Gui Minhai, a Swedish national who also authored some of the relevant books. He was abducted from his apartment in Thailand, turned up in mainland China. In 2020 he was given a 10 years prison sentence for an unsubstantiated accusation of “illegally providing intelligence overseas”.
Many in Hong Kong believed that the proposition of extradictment legislation that was submitted to the Beijing-controlled legislature in Hong Kong was a prelude to quashing outspoken opposition to the communist party leaders openly (and not covertly, which had been the case with the booksellers). The possibility of such legislation to severely undermine freedom of speech in Hong Kong sparked the anti-extradition movement which dominated on the streets in the city in the summer and autumn of 2019.
Upon the tremendous popular resistance the extradition bill was withdrawn in the autumn, but unrest continued through the autumn and into the winter with hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers, sometimes more than a million, exercising the right to demonstrate. They demanded an independent investigation into police brutality, and the introduction of true universal suffrage which was promised in 1997. Most Hongkongers saw these demands as necessary for their freedom of speech to continue.
But Beijing could not accept opposition even in Hong Kong. In July, a National Security Law came into effect, a law that had been written in Beijing without consulting anyone in Hong Kong, not even the Beijing loyalists. And with the National Security Law speech crime was introduced in Hong Kong, in the shape of paragraphs about subversion as in the mainland, and about advocating for independence (secession).
In November 2021, student activist Tony Chung Hon-lam was sentenced to 3 years and 7 months in prison, purely for peaceful protest, most of which took place before the National Security Law came into effect. Later the same month, activist Ma Chun-man (Captain America 2.0) was sentenced to nearly six years behind bars for chanting slogans and for statements he had given to the media.
Hong Kong has also re-introduced the colonial era crime of sedition (similar to Norwegian ‘oppvigleri’), legislation that the British colonial rulers did not apply in any case in the last 25 years of their rule. In April this year pro-democracy activist Tam Tak-chi (“Fast Beat”) was sentenced to 40 months in prison for “uttering seditious words”.
On 10 September five speech therapists were jailed for 19 months in Hong Kong. They had previously been denied bail, and had spent 13 months in detention pre-trial. The sentence was handed down based on sedition charges. Their crime was publishing illustrated children’s books about a flock of sheep threatened by wolves. The stories hit too close to home for the frail dictatorship’s loyal subordinates in Hong Kong.
These examples illustrate well the total change that freedom of speech has undergone in Hong Kong. Beijing has transgressed to imitate the rule of the colonial power that predates the 1997 transition by decades.
Hong Kong has a GDP per capita similar to Germany’s. About one in four Hongkongers have a university degree. Hong Kong has taught the world that freedom of speech cannot be taken for granted even in a prosperous society with a highly educated population, and with a large majority supporting basic human rights. The ruthlessness of a dictatorship which is completely addicted to holding on to power must never be underestimated.
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