Since the handover of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, the territory has theoretically enjoyed autonomy in all areas except foreign affairs and defence under the ‘one country, two systems’ policy stipulated in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. However, in the over 20 years since, this autonomy has come under threat with the Beijing administration’s increasing interference in Hong Kong’s matters, from its judiciary to its business affairs. To date, the election of the Chief Executive or head of government of Hong Kong still needs to be approved by the Beijing administration despite the latter’s promise to allow democratic reform in the territory.
HRDs in Hong Kong working on democratisation and freedom of expression and association are viewed as threats to China’s control over the territory and are especially at risk of judicial harassment. The 2014 Umbrella Movement, which called for true universal suffrage in Hong Kong, saw hundreds of peaceful protestors arrested by the police, including dozens of HRDs. HRDs involved in the pro-democracy movement continue to face judicial harassment several years after the conclusion of the protests. Pro-Beijing media have portrayed these HRDs as criminals and separatists, while the Beijing administration has called for them to be punished more harshly.
In 2017, three HRDs and student leaders of the movement were imprisoned for two months, while seven other HRDs received prison sentences in April 2019 for charges including “incitement to incite public nuisance”. Pro-democracy HRDs also face significant barriers in setting up organisations under the Company Registry, which rejects their application on the grounds that they intend to engage in “unlawful activity”. It is also a challenge for these HRDs to receive funding as banks in Hong Kong consistently reject their applications to set up accounts. There are also allegations that security agents from the mainland have been monitoring and surveilling pro-democracy HRDs in the territory.