Statement | The passage of Article 23 ushers Hong Kong into the era of authoritarianism A devastating blow to the city’s civil liberties and trade unions rights

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We strongly condemn the Hong Kong government’s and the rubber-stamp Hong Kong Legislative Council’s forceful passage of the National Security Legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law (the legislation of Safeguarding National Security Bill). This further devastated the city’s already beleaguered civil liberties and labour rights.

The legislative process for the contentious Article 23 has been exceedingly hasty. The government only allowed one month of consultation, which is exceptionally brief for such controversial legislation. Groups or individuals voicing dissenting opinions have been unfairly vilified and labelled, preventing society from having an open and rational discussion. Furthermore, the legislation’s passage was rushed and approved by a puppet Legislative Council, which showed a lack of democratic representation and checks and balances of power.

Since implementing the Hong Kong National Security Law (NSL) in 2020, over 270 individuals, including at least 11 trade unionists, have been arrested or prosecuted for allegedly endangering national security. Many trade union organisations and civil society groups have been forced to disband or cease operations due to immense political pressure. Protests initiated by labour activists have been forcibly cancelled. The government issued arrest warrants, targeting dissidents and labour activists abroad. Under the guise of safeguarding national security, the Hong Kong government pushed through the legislation of Article 23, deepening the repression with tougher and broader control over the city. Article 23 takes Hong Kong into the era of authoritarianism.

The 23-article legislation grants law enforcement officers excessive power to function as thought police, suppressing opposing views and restricting free expression. The new legislation revives the colonial-era “sedition intentions” offence, which contradicts contemporary international standards on freedom of speech. The government might quiet the public and create a chilling effect by prosecuting individuals based merely on intent and increasing the penalty for this outdated offence to ten years imprisonment. The offence of “to promote feelings of ill-will and enmity between different classes of the population of Hong Kong” may bring trade unions or labour organisations into conflict with the law for engaging in labour disputes. The charge of sedition was previously used to repress the union activities. In 2022 five members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists were  sentenced for 19 months for merely publishing three children’s picture books. With the passage of draconian Article 23, the government has additionally free reign to crush dissenting voices in the city.

Moreover, the new legislation severely curtails the freedom of  association, shrinking the space for civil society, including trade unions. The new legislation gives the Secretary for Security the enormous power to outlaw an organisation based on its potential threat to national security, which is vaguely phrased in the legislation. Under the new legislation, the police’s authority to demand any organisation give internal personnel, operational, and financial information undermines the civil society group’s privacy and autonomy. The amendment of the current Societies Ordinance to include trade unions would bring all trade unions under the government’s political control.

Furthermore, the new legislation’s low threshold for the charge of “external interference” jeopardises routine interchange and connection between Hong Kong workers’  organisations and international unions. The deliberately broad and unclear definition of “external interference” covers foreign governments as well as any ‘international organisations’ or ‘overseas organisations pursuing political ends’. This suggests that all foreign trade unions and overseas labour groups might be categorised as ‘foreign forces’. Under the low threshold offences of “external interference,” for example, reports on Hong Kong labour rights issues conducted by collaboration between Hong Kong trade Unions and International unions may be in violation of the law simply because the government considers these reports to be ‘‘untrue or misleading’’. Similarly, if a Hong Kong trade union seeks support from overseas unions during a labour dispute with a transnational company, and the actions eventually cause the employer “mental stress” or “reputation damage,” it may be considered a crime. The vaguely defined charges in the new legislation provide the administration plenty of room to abuse the law. Under pressures, Hong Kong trade unions would be forced to cut off communication and collaboration with international labour organisations.

As a signatory to the United Nations’ international human rights and labour  conventions, Hong Kong is obligated to fulfill its responsibilities and ensure that civil rights and freedoms are commensurate with international standard. The United Nations Human Rights Committee (the UN committee) has voiced grave concerns about the NSL’s restrictions on trade union rights and freedom. The committee has called on the Hong Kong government to repeal the NSL, arguing that the law and sedition prosecutions have been weaponised to muzzle dissenting voices and contravene human rights conventions. Unfortunately, the Hong Kong administration has turned a deaf ear to the United Nation’s concerns, expanding its control and suppressing human rights in the city by introducing the draconian legislation of Article 23

We strongly demand that the Hong Kong government immediately withdraw the legislation of Article 23 and urge the Hong Kong government to adhere to all requests of the United Nations committee.

Hong Kong Labour Rights Monitor