Beijing loyalists stalk Hong Kong civil society leaders

Almost from the moment he took office as chair of the Hong Kong Bar Association this year, British barrister Paul Harris was a marked man in Beijing.

Officials attacked him as “anti-China” for criticising a national security law imposed on Hong Kong last year that lawyers said broke through a legal firewall previously separating the territory’s judicial system from that of the mainland.

“In my view the 2020 Hong Kong National Security Law is not consistent with the rule of law,” Harris, who has worked in Hong Kong since the 1990s and speaks Cantonese, wrote on taking office.

After only a year as chair, Harris — who declined to speak to the Financial Times for this article — has decided not to run for a second term. This has raised fears over the HKBA’s independence as it prepares for an election next month to replace him, according to barristers who spoke to the Financial Times.

The problems at the HKBA are common across Hong Kong’s civil society. Once a boisterous mix of interest groups, unions and more sober professional bodies, more than 50 organisations have announced their closure since the national security law’s introduction in June 2020.

Many are being replaced by bodies with strong government ties, while those left behind are gradually being silenced. The loss of the civil society groups threatens to further undermine the traditions of free speech and rule of law that underpin Hong Kong as an international business hub, critics say.

In its most recent six-monthly report on Hong Kong, the UK said that “judicial independence is increasingly finely balanced” and noted the pressure on Harris.

Paul Harris, chair of the Hong Kong Bar Association
Paul Harris, chair of the Hong Kong Bar Association. He has decided not to run for a second term © Zuma Press/Alamy

The human rights group Amnesty International, on announcing the closure of its offices in the city in October, said: “Hong Kong has long been an ideal regional base for international civil society organisations, but the recent targeting of local human rights and trade union groups signals an intensification of the authorities’ campaign to rid the city of all dissenting voices.”

Launched in response to anti-government protests in the city in 2019, the crackdown has been described by pro-Beijing loyalists as “deradicalisation”. It has extended from seemingly apolitical professional organisations such as the Hong Kong Institute of Certified Public Accountants, whose regulatory powers to license the profession were handed to a government body, to the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union, which closed in September after helping teachers who had been accused of professional misconduct relating to the protests.

A day after the HKPTU, which was founded in 1973 and had more than 90,000 members, voted to disband, a new organisation called the Hong Kong Education Workers Union emerged. Its members are closely linked to the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Federation of Education Workers, a separate union.

“They need some new faces . . . to pretend to be independent voices after many civil society organisations dissolved,” said Mung Siu-tat, the former head of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, a labour group that had more than 90 affiliates before it disbanded in September. Kim Wong, chair of the EWU, insisted, however, that the group was independent.

“With these [existing] organisations folding, there is now room for new groups which are more co-operative with authorities,” said Lau Siu-kai, vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, a semi-official mainland Chinese think-tank.

Civil society leaders, some of whom have been aligned to the pro-democracy movement, said the official pressure on their groups followed a playbook: government or pro-Beijing figures or state-run newspapers in Hong Kong publicly attack an organisation, suggesting it may have broken the national security law; largely anonymous “middle men” then step in and threaten civil society leaders and their families.

“I was actually interviewed by the middle men three times in one month,” said Mung, who has left the city. “They kept asking me about the income source of HKCTU and about foreign funding.”

In one electronic exchange viewed by the FT, one such middle man first revealed his knowledge of the whereabouts of a family member of a civil society figure before warning that their safety and the person’s career were at risk if they did not quit their position in the organisation.

In this climate, next month’s election for the HKBA, which represents more than 1,500 barristers, promises to be particularly tense.

One candidate tipped to run for chair of the association is Victor Dawes, according to people familiar with the matter. A senior counsel, Dawes has never publicly commented on social or political issues. Dawes did not reply to an inquiry on his intention to run.

Some in the legal community believe his candidacy would be a safer bet than a more outspoken figure to ensure the continuity of the association. “Perception is the most important [thing],” said Alan Leong, chair between 2001 and 2003.

Hong Kong’s Law Society, which represents 12,000 solicitors and is more than 114 years old, also came under attack during its election, with state media warning it could lose its powers to discipline and admit new solicitors if “anti-China” candidates were chosen.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, recently warned the organisation against choosing candidates deemed to be government opponents.

The organisation’s new president, Chan Chak-ming, dismissed concerns about its independence. “We are not supposed to criticise anything. We are a professional body giving out professional advice,” he said. “As the Law Society, we can’t influence the policies of the government.”

A member of the HKBA familiar with the organisation’s election process said the government attacks would “dissuade many, many people from doing their jobs” and curb public debate in the city.

“The opportunity for speaking out with confidence that there are going to be no repercussions for you personally or for the body as a whole has diminished,” the person said.

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