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28 Jun 2022

EU toughens stance on China

Two new reports, one, a country report on Hong Kong, and two, a general report on developments around the world, country by country, with sections on the PRC, Hong Kong and Macau, blast negative developments in all three regions.

This happened shortly after the Swedish government (migration board) became the first known EU country to grant asylum to a Hong Konger specifically because of the National Security Law (NSL), for Liu Narayan [more on that decision further below].



The EU’s Annual Human Rights and Democracy report for 2021 (country report appendix here), released in mid-April, noted further deteriorations in China during 2021 and the continued crackdown on civil society. It notes that civil society faces both closing of their social media account, as well as enforced disbandment and that NGOs can operate only under close supervision by the Party and the State, rendering the very concept of civil society meaningless.

It notes an increase in enforced disappearances, including the use of the secretive RSDL system (Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location) – as recently reported on by Safeguard Defenders with new and exclusive data - but speaks most forcefully, in language that could affect both extraditions sought by China around Europe, and the possibility to seek asylum for Chinese nationals, when it notes “The right to a fair trial and the guarantees of due process of law were almost systematically violated”, in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights article 6. It also notes the use of torture, and [illegal] surveillance post-release from prison, as outlined in a Safeguard Defenders report.

Religious freedoms are placed under the control of an organ of the Party, and the crackdown on Christian Protestants continues. Censorship and targeted abuse of bloggers, journalists, and also foreign media continues, with working conditions for foreign media “deteriorated further”.

In line with prior statements, it also notes the large network of political re-education camps and systemic denial of basic rights in Xinjiang, but also notes similar, if less extreme measures, continuing in both Tibet and Inner Mongolia, in acts to limit the use of their local languages. “Detentions, torture and deaths in prison of Tibetan monks and rights activists continued to be reported”. 


Hong Kong and Macau

The expanded annual country report on Hong Kong SAR, presented on May 20 by the European Commission and the High Representative, notes significant negative developments. 

High Representative/Vice-President Josep Borrell, said: “The 24th Annual Report comes at a time when fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong have deteriorated further. We witness continued shrinking space for civil society and the erosion of what was previously a vibrant and pluralistic media landscape.

Source: Reuters

The report makes clear that the NSL further undermined “one country, two systems” and identifies mass arrests of activists and lawmakers. It also notes the large number of NGOs forced to close and the chilling effect the NSL is having in Hong Kong overall. It notes, as Safeguard Defenders have exposed before, a large number of Hong Kongers in exile now wanted for NSL crimes. 

The changes, imposed by Beijing, to election law are noted to have “further weakened the already modest democratic elements of the electoral system”, and that freedom of assembly and media freedoms have both deteriorated as well. 

Despite the EU being Hong Kong’s third-largest trading partner after China and Taiwan, the EU is calling on all member states to refrain from launching any new negotiations with Hong Kong, and to review asylum, migration, and extradition policies toward Hong Kong, where only Portugal and the Czech Republic remain the only member states to have such extradition agreements after all other EU member states suspended them earlier. 

The 2021 Annual Report echoes much of these conclusions, noting “Severe democratic setbacks and an increasingly restrictive interpretation and dismantling of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle marked the year”. 

The language in the new report is if far harsher than in prior years, such as for 2019 – at the height of the protest movement – when the annual report said that “key freedoms continue to be upheld in Hong Kong, and the rule of law and independence of the judiciary remain as key safeguards”.

The report also includes a section on Macau SAR, an area otherwise often ignored and rarely brought up in media reporting. Unlike Hong Kong’s former colonial rules, the UK, Macau’s (Portugal) keeps entirely silent on developments, despite a similar agreement and framework.

Much of what has been seen in Hong Kong has also been seen in Macau. The report notes ”In 2021, Macao authorities took unprecedented moves that ran counter to the political rights and fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Basic Law of Macao” and that press freedoms met increasing difficulties.

Like in Hong Kong, many candidates were disqualified from running for seats in the legislative assembly, leading, as in Hong Kong, to a mini-parliament almost entirely devoid of any opposition. Interestingly, it also states that “Macao had not yet effectively enforced freedom of association and collective bargaining as enshrined in International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions”. This is interesting as a key argument by the European Commission for the ratifying the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) with China is the (possibly but not mandated) ratification of some of the very same ILO treaties. If Macau can ratify them, yet still fail to enforce them, the chance of real enforcement in the PRC is nil.

Taiwan is also evaluated, but not surprisingly, what is identified is primarily positive developments regarding both human rights, basic freedoms and the rule of law. 


China’s response

China's response to the 2021 Country Report on Hong Kong came swiftly, with an OpEd carried by China Daily, saying "The "Hong Kong Special Administrative Region: Annual Report for 2021", jointly released by the European Commission and the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy on Friday, plays the same old China-bashing tune that Washington politicians have been harping on.", and that "the EU officials who penned the Hong Kong "Annual Report for 2021" not only made a funny joke". 

The Chinese mission ("embassy") to the EU said "We have noted the two reports from the EU side, which confuse right and wrong and constitute gross interference in China's internal affairs by making irresponsible accusations on Hong Kong and Macao's political and economic development and slandering China for undermining "one country, two systems". We strongly disapprove and firm oppose this."

It also says the EU "…chooses to turn a blind eye and a deaf ear" and "urge the EU side to discard the colonial mentality and lecturing others" and to "…immediately stop interfering in any form in Hong Kong and Macao affairs, which are China's internal affairs".

The Hong Kong government has earlier dismissed EU's country report as "biased and ungrounded political smearing" and saying, "It is totally untrue and biased to say that the Hong Kong national security law [has] had a chilling effect on the exercise of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.


Granting asylum to Hong Kongers and Chinese asylum-seekers

The new report on Hong Kong not only calls for further review of extraditions but also on asylum policy. As first reported on by Kinamedia, a China-focused Swedish news outlet, and later by SCMP, Liu Narayan (photo source: Kinamedia) has now become the first known Hong Konger given asylum with direct references to the NSL.

In its decision, shared by Liu to Safeguard Defenders, the Swedish migration board notes the evidence provided by Liu for his involvement, in Sweden, with pro-democratic activities related to Hong Kong is considered enough for him to face political persecution in Hong Kong. It notes that the extraterritoriality clause on the NSL means that lawful, peaceful activities in Sweden can now lead to imprisonment in Hong Kong. It states, “The Law if also applicable extraterritoriality-wise, which would cover the activities you have carried out in Sweden”.

It also notes that Liu is Taiwanese, not Hong Konger, by citizenship, but that he nonetheless still be liable for persecution. 

In view of this, Liu has been granted refugee status in Sweden, and is now safe, alongside his family that also resides in Sweden. The new 2021 Country Report on Hong Kong, alongside this decision, is likely to have consequences for those seeking asylum in other EU countries, opening a clearer path for politically active Hong Kongers to seek a safe haven in the EU. As noted recently by Safeguard Defenders, the number of asylum-seekers from China continues to grow every year since Xi Jinping came to power and reached new record-levels in 2021. Hong Kong continues to see a significant outflow of people, with a net population change of almost minus 100,000 people since mid-2020. 

Due to the increasing weight of China on European security, trade, and economic development, and the multiplying types of cooperation between the PRC and the EU - alongside a continued lack of understanding of China within the EU, its member states, courts, and migration boards - Safeguard Defenders calls upon the European Commission to start producing an annual report on developments in China, in particular covering areas of importance to the EU, similar in scope to that produced on Hong Kong. 

The EU continues to suffer from a lack of centralized policy on China, and with huge variations between member states, most often seen in how courts in different countries process extradition requests, and member states continue to operate under a systemic lack of understanding of how China operates, and what can and can not, realistically, be expected from the PRC in terms of cooperation plans and frameworks. An annual report would go a long way to address these deficiencies and ensure the safeguarding of human rights and the rule of law here in Europe.