Just what does the newly passed National Security Law mean for freedom in Hong Kong?
Will Hongkongers be arrested for talking to journalists and activists in the West? Could Christians, Falun Gong practitioners or other religious believers be persecuted?
And, how should the world respond to a potential mass exodus from Hong Kong?
In this episode, we sit down with human rights activist and writer Benedict Rogers, founder of Hong Kong Watch. He is also the co-founder and deputy chair of the United Kingdom Conservative Party’s human rights commission.
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Ben Rogers, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Benedict Rogers: Thank you very much. It’s great to be with you.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s a pleasure to have you back, but it’s under extremely unfortunate circumstances. We now know the content of the new Hong Kong national security law that’s been basically rubber-stamped through ultimately by the Chinese Communist Party and the Congress. We’re hearing from Secretary Pompeo in a recent speech that Hong Kong will become “just another [communist run] city.” Do you agree? What does that actually mean?
Mr. Rogers: I do agree, although it’s heartbreaking to say that. The reason I agree—and the reason Secretary Pompeo says that—is that … the National People’s Congress’ national security law imposed on Hong Kong totally destroys both Hong Kong’s freedoms and Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, one country two systems, in effect, making Hong Kong at least on a pathway to becoming just another Chinese city. What that means is that it’s going to be accompanied by all the repression that goes with being a Chinese city, the repression at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party, and it means that freedom of expression, freedom to protest, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, are all going to be undermined.
Mr. Jekielek: According to the Hong Kong police’s own messaging, at least three hundred people have been arrested with protests happening on July 1st, and at least nine of them actually under the provisions of this new law.
Mr. Rogers: That’s correct. On one level, the arrests, the police brutality, and the use of tear gas and pepper spray is nothing new. Those things have been happening over the last year or more, and we’ve seen horrific, totally disproportionate, indiscriminate police brutality over the last twelve months. What is new is the police now have this new law that has the potential to result in people being imprisoned on life sentences.
Mr. Jekielek: Ben, let’s talk about the law. Of course, we’ve been looking at it closely here at the Epoch Times. I know you’ve been studying it very carefully, because it has implications for all of us, not just people in Hong Kong. There are four categories of offenses: secession, subverting state power, terrorism, and colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security. What are you seeing in this law?
Mr. Rogers: Well, this is the worst law I think I’ve ever seen in many years of human rights work. It exceeds our worst fears about what the law might contain. … First of all, of course, [nothing on the surface is troubling about] those categories that you just mentioned. Nobody or very few people would have any disagreement with the need to counter terrorism, depending on how you define terrorism. Similarly, subversion, if it was properly defined, could be a different matter.
But the Chinese Communist Party’s definition of terrorism could well include peaceful protesters. The definition of subversion really includes any form of criticism or dissent from the regime. The clause of collusion with foreign entities has the potential, really, to make it a criminal offense for people in Hong Kong to do what they’ve rightly and understandably done for some time now, which is to talk to foreign journalists, foreign activists, foreign parliamentarians. I’ve had people in Hong Kong in the last 24 hours saying to me, “We can’t contact you on social media now. It’s too dangerous.” Those are some of the effects of the law.
Of course, there’s also this clause, Article 38, that applies the categories of the law, not just to Hong Kongers in Hong Kong, but to non-Hong Kongers outside Hong Kong. So in theory, at least, what I do in London—criticizing the regime—and what you do in Washington and this very conversation we’re having now could in theory be a criminal offense under this law.
Mr. Jekielek: … I have written down Article 38 here, because I wanted to actually read it out for the world to hear it. “The law shall be applicable to persons who do not have permanent resident status in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and commit crimes under this law against the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region outside the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” So, in other words, … it could apply to, frankly, anybody that the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t like. That’s what it certainly appears to me to say.
Mr. Rogers: That’s how it appears to me as well. I was talking last night with a number of friends as soon as it came out, and we were just astonished by this, because it could apply to you and me. It could just as easily apply—and this is the absurdity of it—to the former governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, who’s been very outspoken, too. Numerous British parliamentarians, members of the US Congress, in fact pretty much the entire US Congress, British Parliament, European Parliament, President Trump, Secretary Pompeo, the British Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister and others in theory. … It’s a cruel, repressive, horrific law, but it’s also a totally absurd law.
Mr. Jekielek: Speaking of that, I have to ask you. Do you have a Winnie the Pooh pillow behind you?
Mr. Rogers: I do. That’s not because I have necessarily any fondness for cuddly toys. I was given Winnie the Pooh by somebody actually in Taiwan a year ago, and I have him there as a political symbol, because Winnie the Pooh in 2018 was banned from China, because somebody made a comparison between Xi Jinping’s physical appearance and Winnie the Pooh, which I happen to think is an insult to Winnie the Pooh. Nevertheless, Winnie the Pooh was banned because Xi Jinping took offense at that. I was denied entry, as you know, to Hong Kong in 2017, just under a year before Winnie the Pooh was banned. I have a bit of solidarity with him, so I have him there as a symbol of that.
Mr. Jekielek: … Remarkable because … mainland China doesn’t enjoy the rule of law. There’s a certain arbitrariness [to the law, like banning Winnie the Pooh,] that this new legislation kind of expands right?
Mr. Rogers: Absolutely. … Both the content of the law but also the way the law has been introduced is just extraordinary. The speed that it’s been rushed through; the fact that it’s been imposed on Hong Kong by the National People’s Congress in Beijing, not through Hong Kong’s Legislative Council; the fact that within moments of the law being passed Carrie Lam was unaware that it had been passed and seemingly had not seen the content of the law; Hong Kong government officials standing up the day before saying, “We support the law,” even though … they didn’t know what it contained [are all extraordinary].
[There is also] this potentially sweeping effect of the law, the crushing impact it will have on everything, from basic freedoms, to Hong Kong’s autonomy, to the independence of the judiciary. The Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, under the guidance of Beijing with a Beijing-appointed National Security Adviser, will choose the judges for national security cases, totally undermining independence of the judiciary. It’s an all-out assault on Hong Kong.
Mr. Jekielek: All these cases in point for this arbitrariness. … Would it engender a lot of self-censorship?
Mr. Rogers: Yes, I think it will. We’ve already seen yesterday, Joshua Wong and some of his colleagues disbanding the party that they founded, Demosistō, in order to protect themselves. I’ve had messages from people saying, “I might not be able to contact you…” Those who are courageous and want to stay in touch are trying to find more secure means to stay in touch. I think there will be people who are [brave,] and we’ve seen with the protests on July 1st, the 23rd anniversary of the handover and the first day of the effect of this law. We’ve seen people bravely still protesting, so there are many people who are still willing to continue the fight, but I think we will see many people thinking it is not worth the risk. I can understand that if you face a life sentence potentially.
Mr. Jekielek: There was one I guess photo that was published by the Hong Kong police of a man with the Hong Kong independence flag. I don’t know if you saw that.
Mr. Rogers: I did. I have never advocated Hong Kong independence. I’ve always and continue to believe in—even though it’s been destroyed now—the principle and the vision of one country, two systems. But at the same time, I strongly support freedom of expression. This law, which criminalizes even discussion of the idea of independence, is equivalent to if the United Kingdom were to imprison the entire Scottish government. Scotland is led by the Scottish Nationalist Party. Nicola Sturgeon is the First Minister. They are advocates of Scottish independence. Now thankfully, Scotland remains part of the UK, and I am glad about that, but I would never want to imprison Nicola Sturgeon or the Scottish nationalists.
Somebody a little while ago in Hong Kong, maybe a year or so ago when the Hong Kong National Party was banned, I tweeted saying that I don’t advocate and I don’t support Hong Kong independence, but I do support the right of people to talk about it. And somebody messaged me and said, “Well, how would you feel if advocates of Scottish independence were in your Parliament?” I said, “They’re the third-largest party in our Parliament.” [Restricting speech] is devastating. I did see that picture. It was amazing the courage of that person, knowing the risks, that he still went out with that flag.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, it’s very curious too, because I saw some discussion on social media and Telegram [messenger]. There’s apparently two little characters on that flag which say, “I don’t support” [before the larger characters “Hong Kong Independence”] or something to that tune that keen-eyed people younger than I noticed.
Mr. Rogers: I wasn’t aware of that. That’s very interesting. … One thing I think we will see—and we’ve already seen over the last year and more, but we’ll see more of—is much more creativity. I think we may see possibly fewer street protests, but we may see people expressing dissent in more creative and perhaps more subtle ways.
Mr. Jekielek: Something that’s kind of stark and new is the purple flag. Tell me about the purple flag.
Mr. Rogers: Yes, this was the police warning to protesters. I have to admit, I haven’t studied it in great detail, but it was essentially, I believe, warning protesters about the things that the law can be applied for. … Within hours of the law being introduced, the police deployed this new tool in their armory to instill fear in people.
Mr. Jekielek: Ben, … given that foreign commentary on this reality in Hong Kong might be seen as criminal, what is the value of prominent voices speaking out in favor of freedom in Hong Kong or something in that vein?
Mr. Rogers: I think it’s absolutely essential to do so for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Chinese Communist Party must not be allowed to get away with this. They may get away with it in the short term. They have implemented the law now. But I think we should make sure that the regime, not the people of China, not the country of China, but the regime and the Hong Kong government who represent that same regime, pay a very high price and face the consequences for this. The international community really needs to rally together and deliver an extremely strong not just message but action in response to this.
That’s important because if the regime is allowed to just get away with this with impunity, then it’s not going to stop with Hong Kong. Taiwan will be next. Taiwan will be in its sights. Actually our own societies will be further threatened as well. I’ve always seen Hong Kong as the front line in the fight for freedom against authoritarianism. The Chinese Communist Party already is encroaching on our freedoms, in your country [USA] and mine [UK]. We mustn’t let that continue.
It’s also important to speak up, because, as we’ve just been saying, it will become more and more dangerous for people in Hong Kong to do so. I’ve had messages from people saying, “You know, we may not be able to continue to speak out now, or if we do, we’ll be taking a huge risk. So we want you outside Hong Kong to speak for us.” Both to defend our own interests, to stop the encroachment of the Chinese Communist Party further, to make sure that they face consequences, and in order to speak for those who might not be able to speak, it’s really important to do so.
Mr. Jekielek: Ben, what are the implications of this law … acting retroactively? What does that actually mean? How does that affect things?
Mr. Rogers: Well, like many things surrounding this law, that’s not entirely clear yet, at least to my understanding. It’s possible I’ve missed something. But, with this regime, I don’t think we should underestimate the lengths they will go to suppress dissent. It’s certainly possible that they’ll find ways to go after people that have long been in their sights and until now have had the freedom in Hong Kong to continue speaking out. I’m not sure I want to name names necessarily, but prominent Hong Kong democrats of all generations must be in grave danger now.
Mr. Jekielek: There have been some responses to this already. Certainly there’s revoking of special trade status that has been announced on the US side. There’s been a recent speech by [British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs] Dominic Raab reinforcing that the British National overseas passport holders will be welcome to the UK. There’s a whole range of responses, and of course Hong Kong Watch, your organization, has ideas about what the responses should be. Tell me about this.
Mr. Rogers: Yes, I welcome the responses that have been made so far. It’s worth saying that actually ever since the law was first proposed over a month ago, there has been a strong international reaction, which I had hoped might prevent the law going forward. We were able to mobilize over nine hundred parliamentarians from over forty countries to sign a statement that was initiated by the last governor of Hong Kong, Lord [Chris] Patten, and the former British Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind. And there’ve been various other initiatives over the last few weeks.
Going forward, I see essentially a three-pronged approach. I think there should be a coordinated punitive approach of targeted sanctions. Sanctions, not against the people of China, but against individuals and entities that are part of the Chinese Communist Party regime in Beijing and its proxies in Hong Kong, who are responsible for serious human rights violations and who are responsible for this law. Secondly, I think there should be a diplomatic route, particularly through the United Nations. When I say diplomatic, I’m not talking about negotiations but more monitoring the situation.
I’ve been calling for the UN to establish either a special envoy or a special rapporteur for human rights in Hong Kong, because I think it’s really important that the international community keeps a very close eye on how this law is implemented and what the human rights abuses are. There were increasing calls in support of that last week. At least fifty current UN special rapporteurs called for a UN mechanism actually for China as a whole, taking into account what’s happening in Xinjiang and what’s happening to others in mainland China. The former head of human rights at the UN, Zeid Raad Al Hussein, together with eight former special rapporteurs called for a special rapporteur or envoy on Hong Kong. Others have done so too. The chairs of the Foreign Affairs committees in the parliaments of the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand have written to the UN Secretary General calling for this. So I think that’s a path that we should continue to press.
Then thirdly, a humanitarian response, which should be a last resort because our aim is not for Hong Kongers to leave their homes and leave their city. Our aim should be to try to stop this crisis escalating and to protect rights in Hong Kong. But nevertheless, the reality of this law is that it’s going to be very dangerous for some people in Hong Kong. I think that the international community together should come up with a lifeboat rescue package, … because … if they come in large numbers, no one country can take everybody.
Britain has already made this extremely welcome offer to the 3 million potential British National Overseas passport holders in Hong Kong. That’s incredible and very welcome. But of course, many of the political activists, especially of a younger generation, are not BNO Passport Holders. So I think the UK, the US, Canada, Australia, some European countries and others should coordinate together to give people a place to flee to if they need to.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. On June 30, I saw that there was legislation led by Senator Marco Rubio to offer some kind of lifeboat for Hong Kongers to the US. I’ve seen some rumblings of this in other places. Before we talk further about this whole lifeboat initiative, I wanted to just ask you briefly about the UN. You appear to still have faith in that system. I saw that the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders had made a statement also very recently upon the passing of the law. These mechanisms still exist. I’ve seen them be very useful in the past, but there’s a lot of concern, especially considering the composition of the UN Human Rights Council, as to whether this body can actually be effective at all anymore.
Mr. Rogers: Absolutely. I understand and share some of those concerns. I’m deeply concerned about China’s presence and the increase in its influence and its attempt to reshape the UN. We’ve seen it with multilateral organizations, particularly the WHO over the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. So I absolutely share those concerns.
… I’ve worked in the field of human rights for more than 20 years. I’ve been to the UN. I don’t have unrealistic hopes or expectations. But I do think, first of all, these mechanisms are there, and it’s better to use them than not use them, particularly among the special rapporteurs. Many of the special rapporteurs serve a valuable role in highlighting human rights situations. At least there is a reporting mechanism that can be used to mobilize governments that is beyond simply NGOs reporting.
I also think it’s actually really important to try not to surrender the UN to China and say, “Well, we give up. It’s not working. We’ll not use it, and we’ll withdraw.” Then China just takes over immediately. I think it’s really important for us to be there fighting our corner and trying to push China’s influence back and reshape the UN into what it should be.
Mr. Jekielek: So Ben, let’s go back to this lifeboat idea here. I saw that in The Spectator UK, the editor Fraser Nelson has been calling for every Hong Konger to be given full citizenship. That would be sort of the biggest offer that could be out there. From the Hong Kong Watch perspective, what should the UK be doing?
Mr. Rogers: Well, I really applaud Fraser Nelson’s vision, and of course I sympathize with it enormously. I think the UK’s offer already of taking the 3 million BNOs is a really excellent start. I’m not sure. As much as I would support it, and as much as I believe actually that Hong Kongers, wherever they go if they do flee, would be the most enormous blessing and benefit to any society that accepts them—because they’re remarkably entrepreneurial, creative, dynamic people who will benefit any economy in any society rather than being a burden to it—but realistically, I am not sure that even if I wanted to, I’m not sure that British people and Britain as a whole would say, “Yeah, we will take all 7 million or so,” particularly in these difficult economic times.
Britons have welcomed the policy of offering the 3 million BNOs, and I think I’m really actually pleasantly surprised that the British population has responded with such generosity of spirit. … Where I do agree totally, is that Britain should play a leading role in coordinating a lifeboat program, so that if the entire population of Hong Kong did need to flee—that’s probably not going to happen anyway; there will always be Hong Kongers who won’t want to flee, but if a significant proportion of them do—then if there’s a coordinated, agreed approach between like-minded countries as to how to share responsibility for helping them. That I think is the way forward.
Mr. Jekielek: Do you expect a mass exodus in the near future, simply based on this law?
Mr. Rogers: I think I do. I mean, I obviously can’t predict numbers and there may be some people, and I think there already are people who will be getting out fast. There’ll be other people who will be planning to leave but … if they haven’t been prominently outspoken, they may not feel the need to drop everything at once. But there will be people who will be thinking of packing up and leaving their jobs and getting out, but equally there will be very brave people who decide to stay and fight. And of course, not absolutely the entire Hong Kong population is on the same side. … The very fact that this law has come into being is in part because there are sadly, Hong Kongers who are complicit with the Chinese Communist Party and who presumably, therefore, would stay.
Mr. Jekielek: Right.In terms of these lifeboat countries, we of course have Taiwan, which I understand has a pretty wide-open door to Hong Kongers at the moment. We have some discussion in the US, of course. We have a lot of Hong Kongers that also have Canadian passports, so that’s a route. We have this UK [policy]: that would be a potential massive number. Are there any other places that jump to mind?
Mr. Rogers: Well, I haven’t studied the details of this, but I understand that Japan has made an offer. The press reports that I saw were that they were offering to take specifically financial sector workers. I’m not quite sure what the rationale for that was. But I welcome Japan’s engagement with this issue and indeed Japan’s leadership at the G7 [Group of Seven] in leading the statement the other week. I think Australia is also a possibility. Some people have talked about the Commonwealth, because although Hong Kong is not part of the Commonwealth of course, the Commonwealth is made up of former British colonies with that shared history, and so there’s a spirit of the Commonwealth that’s relevant here. But I guess the Commonwealth countries most likely to be involved in this are the ones already mentioned: Canada, Australia, perhaps New Zealand. Maybe some European countries as well.
Mr. Jekielek: Ben, you also serve in another capacity with Christian Solidarity Worldwide. What are your thoughts on the implications for religious freedom in Hong Kong from this law?
Mr. Rogers: Absolutely. I actually work for CSW full time. Even though Hong Kong is taking up a huge amount of my energy and attention for very understandable reasons, my full-time work is with CSW, and I’m deeply concerned about the implications for religious freedom in Hong Kong from this law. First of all, we’ve seen over the last few years the most severe crackdown on religious freedom in mainland China, arguably since the Cultural Revolution, when you look at what’s happened to the Uyghurs, when you look at the continued persecution of Falun Gong, the continued situation in Tibet, but also a massively escalated campaign against Christians, involving the destruction of thousands of churches and crosses, severe restrictions even in the state-controlled churches that are supposed to be state-approved, and the imprisonment of pastors.
Just as one example, the case of pastor Wang Yi, who was jailed just after Christmas on a nine-year prison sentence. He was charged with subversion, which of course is one of the elements of the security law in Hong Kong now. The reason he was accused of subversion was that he had in a sermon simply stated that Xi Jinping is not God. That was a subversive remark in the eyes of the Communist Party.
I am very concerned for the situation in Hong Kong. It might not necessarily be the case that churches and other places of worship are immediately shut down or restricted or any of the dramatic things we’ve seen in mainland China. But what I do think is very likely is that pastors and priests’ sermons will be more closely monitored. Those who preach in their sermons on questions of human dignity, human rights, justice may find themselves in trouble with the law. Those churches and individual Christians who’ve taken part, for example, in the last year, in candlelit prayer vigils in support of the demonstrators, or handed out water to the demonstrators, or given shelter to the demonstrators in their churches could be at risk.
Of course, Hong Kong has been the only place in China until now where Falun Gong practitioners have been able, relatively freely—I know there’ve been some small-scale problems but nothing like what’s happened in the mainland—relatively freely to practice and to protest and to gather. I would imagine Falun Gong practitioners in Hong Kong must be feeling very worried tonight. I know from Christian leaders in Hong Kong that they’ve been expressing concerns.
And I raise the question: how long will it be before somebody like the courageous Cardinal [Joseph] Zen, who’s been an outspoken critic of Beijing for a long time, or indeed the auxiliary bishop Bishop Joseph Hart, who in maybe a slightly more understated but nevertheless courageous way has been a strong voice in recent years. How long will it be before they end up in the same way that so many Catholic bishops and cardinals and clergy in mainland China have ended up—in prison, in house arrest, or even in danger of their lives?
Mr. Jekielek: … Cardinal Zen has been on the show. I imagine he’ll be one of the people in his very calm and collected way who will be staying to “fight,” although I don’t know if he would necessarily say it that way. Before we finish up, I wanted to ask you about the impact on independent journalism. There is the Apple Daily, and there is, of course, the Epoch Times in Hong Kong. What do you expect the impact of this law on independent journalism?
Mr. Rogers: Well, again, that remains to be seen. I know that the media is intending to try to carry on. The Hong Kong Free Press is another excellent independent media source, and I know they’re intending to continue their work. I’ve actually just been asked a few days ago before the law was introduced to write a weekly column in the Apple Daily, which I’ve agreed to do. I’ve just written my first column for them last night, which will come out, all being well, on Friday.
But I do question how long that will last because if this law is really implemented with the full force that the Chinese Communist Party has a track record of doing, then independent journalism is in grave risk. Even if those publications are able to survive, life for journalists on the streets is going to get even more dangerous. We’ve already seen over the last year police violence towards journalists, threatening them verbally, spraying tear gas and pepper spray directly in their faces, all sorts of other physical abuse of them. I think we will see the police becoming even more heavy-handed with journalists at a minimum, but we may see publications threatened as well.
Mr. Jekielek: To finish up, I wanted to ask you about something you posted, which I frankly found touching. I just wanted you to expand on it for me a little bit. You said “Don’t listen to the Grand Master in Beijing. Listen to the Grand Master within your heart.” Tell me what you mean here.
Mr. Rogers: Every day over the last few months, well really since lockdown, I have been practicing my Chinese characters. I … studied Chinese many years ago, but pretty much forgot all of it and hadn’t used it for many, many years. With the help of Hong Kong friends, I started writing traditional Chinese characters and just a little slogan or phrase each day. Another Hong Kong friend of mine suggested some characters from the movie The Grandmaster, which is a kind of kung fu movie. I wrote these characters, but I thought I put my own kind of interpretation, so the words in English that I wrote were not a translation of the characters.
What I meant by that really was, and I would caveat this by saying, of course, people need to be wise and careful, people’s security is of paramount importance, and I’m not telling Hong Kongers what they should or shouldn’t do. Far be it for me to sit in the safety of London and tell people what they should do. My role always is only to support Hong Kongers, but I suppose I was trying to encourage people not to lose all hope, not to think that this is absolutely the end.
It’s going to be a very dark time for Hong Kong for a period of time. But if they hold on to their conscience and the values that are in their heart, whatever their own spiritual beliefs, that’s what they should listen to. Not necessarily to act on in public. That’s for each individual according to their own conscience and circumstances, but just internally within their hearts not to allow the grandmaster in Beijing, Xi Jinping, to overtake their view of life, their whole way of life, but to hold on to what they really believe in. I know they will. Hong Kongers don’t need me to say this to them, but it was just a way of encouraging them.
Mr. Jekielek: Ben Rogers, such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Rogers: Thank you so much. Pleasure to be with you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.