Benedict Rogers was surprised when he heard that he’d been accused by police in Hong Kong of jeopardising China’s national security and threatened with jail time under the draconian National Security Law. The chief executive of Hong Kong Watch, a charity that campaigns for human rights in the former British colony, told Index that while he knew there was an extra-territorial element to the law, he didn’t believe “they’d go this far”.
Three weeks ago Rogers learnt that the website attached to Hong Kong Watch had been blocked in Hong Kong. After making enquiries about why he received letters back charging him under the law.
“I guess the letters I received were an answer to the inquiry,” he said.
Passed in the summer of 2020, the National Security Law caused global outcry in its implications for freedoms in Hong Kong as it effectively made any form of dissent illegal. But it was not just the punishment for dissent within its borders that caused alarm – even those outside Chinese territory could be charged with breaking it. Index wrote about the law at the time, calling it a “devastating blow to Hong Kong’s autonomy”.
Approaching two years since its passage, scores of arrests and prison sentences have been handed out to protesters and journalists in Hong Kong. This though is the first time the law has been used against an advocacy group outside of Hong Kong.
Rogers is a British human rights activist and journalist based in London. In addition to his work at Hong Kong Watch, he is co-founder and deputy chairman of the Conservative Party’s human rights commission, a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China and an advisor to the World Uyghur Congress.
The action is a clear attempt by Beijing to make anyone, anywhere feel vulnerable. They want to reinforce the message that no corner of the globe is beyond their reach, something we have been reporting on recently in our series Banned by Beijing. That it comes on the back of the Hong Kong Watch website being shut down is another worrying sign that Beijing is trying to shape Hong Kong – which does not have a Great Firewall – in its own image.
Rogers says he is not concerned for his own safety and that he has already taken measures to protect those he does communicate with inside Hong Kong, measures that he will take even further now. He sees it as another “sad deterioration in the Hong Kong situation”.
Today our fears lie with all those who want to promote respect for free speech and human rights within China and Hong Kong and might not do so following this message. People in Hong Kong itself already live with the daily fear of repercussions as they see more and more of their friends, relatives and associates being arrested and jailed. We don’t want this fear to infect those outside, to stop them honestly reporting on the situation and communicating with those inside. We need a united front to campaign against Beijing’s actions.
We are also fearful for those in other authoritarian countries around the world. The move comes less than a fortnight after Russia passed its “fake news” law to imprison anyone inside Russia criticising the war in Ukraine. Putin passed this law overnight. We fear he could look to Beijing and decide to extend it to critical voices outside the country, who are playing such a crucial role in revealing the horrors of Ukraine and holding him to account.
Echoing our concerns, Lord Patten of Barnes, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and a patron of Hong Kong Watch, said:
“This is another disgraceful example of Mr Putin’s friends in Beijing and their quislings in Hong Kong trying not only to stamp out freedom of expression and information in Hong Kong but also to internationalise their campaign against evidence, freedom and honesty.”
UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has called it “unjustifiable”.
“Attempting to silence voices globally that speak up for freedom and democracy is unacceptable and will never succeed,” she said.
Rogers, who spoke to Index in 2017 about threatening letters he received from Hong Kong to his London home (also sent to his neighbours’), says the last four to five years has seen a succession of threats including letters and emails, with this action being the latest and most extreme. Still, he says he will not let this attack silence him.
“We’re not going to take the website down. We’re needed more than ever,” he told Index.