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Amnesty to shutter Hong Kong offices, blames security law

Hong Kong—Amnesty International said Monday it will shutter its offices in Hong Kong because of the threat posed to staff by a national security law that has fronted a sweeping crackdown on dissent in the business hub.

China imposed the law last year in response to massive and often violent democracy protests, transforming Hong Kong’s political, cultural, and legal landscape and introducing mainland-style speech curbs.

Anjhula Mya Singh Bais, chair of Amnesty’s board, said the decision to close had been made “with a heavy heart” and was “driven by Hong Kong’s national security law”.

“(It) has made it effectively impossible for human rights organizations in Hong Kong to work freely and without fear of serious reprisals from the government,” she added.

The decision ends more than four decades of the international human rights group’s presence in the city.

Amnesty maintains two offices in Hong Kong. 

The first is a local branch that focuses on human rights and campaigns in the city itself. Recent reports published by the team have included investigations into how the security law has been deployed and studies of the police’s use of force against democracy protesters.

The second office is a regional headquarters that carries out research and advocacy work across East and Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Amnesty said the local office would close on October 31 while the regional office would move out “by the end of 2021”.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s decision to pursue a zero-Covid strategy and maintain some of the world’s strictest quarantine measures is hammering the city’s business reputation, the top lobby group for financial firms in the city said Monday. AFP

The warning came as a survey showed almost half of major international banks and asset managers are considering moving staff out of the city as they struggle to retain employees or attract fresh talent.

Hong Kong has been kept comparatively free of the coronavirus thanks to strict travel curbs and up to 21 days of mandatory hotel quarantine for anyone arriving in the finance hub.

But there is growing frustration among businesses that there is no end in sight to the restrictions as officials make it clear opening up to the Chinese mainland must come before any easing of international travel curbs.

On Monday, the Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association (ASIFMA) published a letter to Finance Secretary Paul Chan that warned Hong Kong was being left behind while rival financial centers such as London, New York, Paris, Singapore, and Tokyo were learning to live with the coronavirus.

“Hong Kong’s status as an international financial centre is increasingly at risk along with its long-term economic recovery and competitiveness as a premier place to do business,” the letter warned.

Hong Kong dubs itself “Asia’s World City” and has long advertised itself as a business-friendly gateway to mainland China with its own separate legal system and speech freedoms unseen on the mainland.

As a result, many international businesses, media groups and non-governmental organizations have used the city as a regional hub.

Arrests and asset freezes

But sweeping political changes in the last two years have created risks for any organisation that might criticize or disagree with China’s government.

The national security law imposed after the 2019 democracy protests covers any offence China considers secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism.

More than 70 people, including many of Hong Kong’s most prominent democracy activists, have since been charged with security crimes, almost all for holding political views now deemed illegal.

The law also empowers authorities to freeze the assets of any individual or entity marked as a security threat and most of those arrested are denied bail until trial.

Earlier this year, Hong Kong’s most outspoken pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily collapsed after its assets were frozen and its top executives were arrested.

Dozens of civil society groups have disbanded in recent months in a bid to avoid a national security investigation, often after being labelled “subversive” by China’s state-controlled media.

“Hong Kong has long been an ideal regional base for international civil society organizations, 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,” Amnesty’s Bais said.

Major tech companies such as Google, Facebook and Twitter have spoken publicly about their concerns about Hong Kong’s security law. 

Last year, The New York Times cited risks posed by the security law when it announced it was relocating most of its Asia headquarters from Hong Kong to Seoul. 

Topics: democracy protests , Hong Kong , Anjhula Mya Singh Bais , Asia Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association
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