A UK-based rights group has pledged not to remain silent after Hong Kong’s government demanded it shut its website and accused it of endangering China’s national security.
While China heavily restricts the internet on the mainland, Hong Kong does not generally censor the web, allowing residents to access sites and content that might be critical of Beijing.
However, Monday’s announcement means Hong Kong Watch is the first overseas advocacy group to confirm it is being targeted under a sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed to snuff out dissent in the territory in mid-2020.
“By threatening a UK-based NGO with financial penalties and jail for merely reporting on the human rights situation in Hong Kong, this letter exemplifies why Hong Kong’s national security law is so dangerous,” said the group’s chief executive, Benedict Rogers.
Rogers, who was barred in 2017 from visiting Hong Kong, added: “We will not be silenced by an authoritarian security apparatus which, through a mixture of senseless brutality and ineptitude, has triggered rapid mass migration out of the city and shut down civil society.”
Hong Kong’s security bureau accused the group of “colluding with foreign forces to endanger national security”, according to an email sent on 10 March that Hong Kong Watch posted in full on its website on Monday.
The offence, one of the four major crimes under the security law, carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
“Criminal investigation reveals that ‘Hong Kong Watch’ has been engaging in … lobbying foreign countries to impose sanctions or blockade” against China and Hong Kong, the security bureau said in its email.
Hong Kong’s police chief also sent a notice on the same day demanding that the group remove all publications from its website.
“Should you fail to do so, further action will be instituted … without further notice,” the email warned.
The Hong Kong police said on Monday it does not comment on specific cases, but it added that the public can continue to use the internet “lawfully”.
Founded in 2017, Hong Kong Watch monitors “threats to Hong Kong’s basic freedoms, the rule of law and autonomy”.
The national security law is one of many seismic legal and political changes seen in Hong Kong in recent years as China remoulds the former British colony in its own authoritarian image.
Hong Kong Watch is supported by a number of UK politicians, including Hong Kong’s last colonial-era governor, Chris Patten.
Since last month, the rights group’s website has not been accessible in the territory without the use of a virtual private network (VPN).