The European Commission and the High Representative today reported on political and economic developments in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. The 24th Annual Report to the European Parliament and the Council covers developments in 2021.
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.”
The report highlights that, in 2021, the ‘one country, two systems’ principle in Hong Kong was further undermined by the implementation of the National Security Law (NSL). The year started with the mass arrest of 55 pro-democracy activists, including prominent political figures, in early January, and ended with the elections of a Legislative Council devoid of opposition on 19 December.
As of 31 December 2021, around 162 individuals including former pro-democracy activists, opposition lawmakers, journalists and academics have been arrested under the NSL and other related legislation. The pro-democracy activists prosecuted in relation to their involvement in the informal pro-democracy primary elections of 2020 have been charged with ‘conspiracy to commit subversion’. Only 14 have secured bail as of the end of 2021. Long pre-trial detentions, sometimes in solitary confinement, are also a major source of concern.
The NSL has had a chilling effect on Hong Kong’s civil society. More than 50 civil society organisations have disbanded out of fear of prosecution, with some activists citing threats to personal safety. The NSL’s extraterritorial provisions remained a source of concern. Around 30 activists located overseas were reportedly on a wanted list of the law enforcement agencies. Against the background of the ongoing political developments, emigration out of Hong Kong increased. Official figures of the Statistics Department released in August 2021 showed a net outflow of around 89 200 residents since mid-2020.
Media freedom also regressed in 2021. The independent newspaper Apple Daily closed in June; former Apple Daily executives and editors were charged with foreign collusion under the NSL. Police raided the newsroom of independent online outlet Stand News and arrested its employees for publishing ‘seditious materials’.
Freedom of assembly has been curtailed in light of the NSL and COVID-19 restrictions. Applications for public assemblies have been refused since July 2020. Public gatherings of more than four people have been banned since March 2020, including the June 4th vigil, organised by the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China for over 20 years.
On 30 March 2021, the National People’s Congress amended the annexes of the Basic Law to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system. This further weakened the already modest democratic elements of the electoral system and ensured that pro-establishment voices could control all levels of governance. The Legislative Council Election, originally scheduled for September 2020, took place on 19 December 2021. This was the first election since the imposition of the NSL and the implementation of sweeping changes in the electoral system. Only one ‘non pro-establishment’ lawmaker managed to get elected.
The Annual Report also highlights the substantial commercial links between the European Union and Hong Kong. As of June 2021, at least 1,614 EU companies were present in Hong Kong, and many of them were using Hong Kong as regional headquarters. Bilateral trade in goods reached €30.5 billion, an increase of 2.5% year-on-year compared to 2020. European Union exports of goods to Hong Kong amounted to €23.5 billion, while imports from Hong Kong totalled €7 billion, resulting in a surplus of €16.5 billion for the European Union. The European Union was Hong Kong’s third largest trading partner in goods in 2021, after Mainland China and Taiwan.
However, companies were impacted significantly by the COVID-19 restrictions and in particular long compulsory hotel quarantines.