Matthew Brooker

Can Hong Kong Repair Its Battered Image?

In the eyes of Hong Kong’s new leader John Lee, the city has a publicity problem. It has a great story to tell, and just needs to do a better job of showcasing its achievements to the world. “We should not belittle ourselves,” Lee told lawmakers a few days after taking office last month, saying he planned to send delegations overseas to “convey the truth” about Hong Kong. How’s that going so far? Not smoothly.

Figures released last week showed a 1.6% drop in the population that was the largest in at least six decades, with a decline of 121,500 residents in the year ended June 30. A government commentary accompanying the data pointed to a number of factors, including a plunge in the number of births, an increase in deaths, the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated impact of stringent border control and quarantine requirements. One element it didn’t mention: the national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in mid-2020. That’s a striking omission, considering that 113,742 Hong Kongers were granted visas to enter the UK alone under the British Nationals (Overseas) scheme between January 2021 and late May this year — a program that was explicitly linked to the passage of the security law.

If the census data undercut Lee’s narrative, even that pales beside the report last month from the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which placed the security law front and center in a wide-ranging critique of how authorities have suppressed and undermined rights to freedom of expression; peaceful assembly; freedom of association; judicial independence and fair trial; and participation in public affairs. Human rights lawyers described the report, a review of Hong Kong’s compliance with its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, or ICCPR, as one of the strongest condemnations they had ever seen from the committee. It lays down a marker that will hang over the city for years; officials will have to answer how they have acted on the recommendations of the UN’s experts at the next review in 2028.

The government’s initial reaction attests to the damage that the report has done to the financial center’s international reputation. In Hong Kong’s radically reshaped political culture, the security law has effectively been declared sacrosanct, with even the mildest criticisms typically labelled “smears.” Former Hong Kong Bar Association Chairman Paul Harris, who had called for the law to be amended, fled the territory in March shortly after being interviewed by national security police, having been branded “anti-China” by Beijing’s state-run media. Yet in its lengthy July 27 statement, the Hong Kong government refrained from leveling such accusations at the UN’s independent human-rights experts. Instead, it applauded a “constructive dialogue” with the committee and asserted that it had been the victim of “misunderstandings.”

The authorities’ argument, as it has been from the start, is that the national security law was a necessary response to the violence of pro-democracy protests in 2019, and that the rights and freedoms of residents have been protected. After dealing with this little local difficulty, the city remains fundamentally the same, only better: Hong Kong is moving from “chaos to stability and prosperity,” in the oft-repeated slogan of Chinese government agencies and media.

It’s a theme that runs through official communications, including the words of Lee, who oversaw the 2019 crackdown and was handpicked by Beijing to be the next chief executive. Hong Kong society is “free, open and inclusive,” the former policeman said in his question-and-answer session with legislators last month. “Apart from being a dynamic city, Hong Kong has a low-tax regime and has put in place a well-established system with a very high degree of transparency. Our rule of law is clear and protects citizens of Hong Kong very well. These are the strengths we can leverage on and I think no matter how others try to smear, they can never succeed.”

As a line of attack for a public relations campaign, this has very little chance of working — at least in the liberal democratic sphere which, presumably, is its primary target. It attempts an impossible contradiction: convincing the world that, having wholly embraced the political culture and values of the Communist Party-run mainland, Hong Kong somehow remains an island of freedom and openness between East and West. To call a city “inclusive” that has eradicated political opposition and jailed many of its leading figures, keeping them incarcerated while awaiting trial for close to a year and a half now, is quite the claim.

To see just how much the nature of Hong Kong’s political discourse has changed, it’s worth revisiting Lee’s meeting with the Legislative Council, where speaker after speaker in the opposition-free chamber felt it necessary to preface their questions with a tribute to the “ important speech” delivered by President Xi Jinping in the territory a few days earlier. Such ritualistic displays of loyalty are common in the mainland, as the New York Times noted, though were alien to pre-2020 Hong Kong, a rambunctious former British colony that was promised it could keep its system and way of life unchanged after returning to Chinese control in 1997.

Xi has made no secret of his antagonism to the West’s liberal values including its advocacy of human rights, which China has decreed an attempt to weaken the Communist Party’s leadership. In that light, and considering Hong Kong’s professed adherence to Xi’s leadership, it’s odd that the city has invested such effort in defending its record of compliance with a treaty that is built on those very concepts.

It would be more logically consistent, in the circumstances, for Hong Kong to reject the UN review in its entirety as an unwarranted, politically motivated attack. Things may, in fact, be moving in that direction. A second response to the committee’s concluding observations, posted on the UN’s website, takes a far more combative tone. The statement said the committee had “chosen to accept false information and distorted narratives regardless of the truth.” It said the UN dialogue should not be used by those with “ulterior motives” to “slander” the human rights situation in Hong Kong and Macau.

The dissonance between the two statements hints at differences of opinion — perhaps between local officials who appreciate the economic importance of the city’s connections to the democratic world and mainland cadres more closely wedded to China’s “wolf warrior” approach to external criticism. Notably, the Chinese version of the undated UN website statement is in the simplified characters used in the mainland rather than the traditional variety common in Hong Kong and Macau, in whose names the document was submitted. While China is the sovereign of both territories, it hasn’t ratified and so isn’t a party to the ICCPR.

Which stance prevails may be critical to the future of the financial center, bearing directly on the degree of liberty and rights protection that the city can expect, and by extension its attractiveness as a place to live for overseas professionals. There is no enforcement mechanism for the ICCPR, and no provision for parties to withdraw. As a result, the impact of the UN committee’s censure will play out largely in the realm of public relations and image management.

“The concluding observations are part of a longer-term effort to nudge the Hong Kong government and Beijing to rethink key elements of the national security law, and to ask whether the costs — to Hong Kong's reputation, to the integrity of its own legal system — are worth whatever perceived benefits are there,” Tom Kellogg, executive director of the Center for Asian Law at Georgetown University, said by email. “The next time Hong Kong is reviewed, officials will have to answer very difficult questions.”

The wolf warrior camp may feel that China has more to gain from defiance than persuasion. Beijing has spent time and effort in trying to shape UN institutions in a direction more to its liking, with some measure of success. The visit of UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet to Xinjiang in May was widely seen as a propaganda coup for Beijing. Where Hong Kong is concerned, it has already scored one win. In a vote at the UN’s Human Rights Council two years ago, 53 countries supported the national security law, against 27 that criticized it.

Behind the bare numbers, though, the voting list should have made troubling reading for Hong Kong officials. States supporting the law included Myanmar, North Korea and Cuba. Among the opposition bloc were Germany, Japan, France and the UK — all economically far more important partners for the city. Needless to say, authoritarian regimes are more open to the argument that individual rights must be circumscribed to protect the security of the party in power. Democracies are far less susceptible to that line of reasoning.

As they plot a return to some semblance of normality after more than two years of pandemic controls, Hong Kong authorities have some thinking to do. Protest as much as they like, their remonstrations have little chance of changing minds. The loss of freedoms is too self-evident to be denied with any credibility. If the city wishes to end its self-imposed isolation and regain the open, liberal hub status that once underpinned its success, only a course correction will suffice. In the end, Hong Kong doesn’t have a publicity problem so much as a reality problem.