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Leveraging speech to punish: Hong Kong authorities tell British human rights exec to silence his charity or face prison


Hong Kong’s National Security Department recently sent a letter to human rights organization Hong Kong Watch threatening to jail its chief executive for violating the National Security Law.

Quick Facts

The National Security Law was passed in 2020 and basically criminalizes all forms of dissent, including protests, the independent press, and websites and organizations critical of Hong Kong authorities or the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The letter, addressed to co-founder and chief executive Benedict Rogers, charged that the publication of the U.K.-based organization’s website is “likely to constitute or cause the occurrence of the Collusion Offence which is an offence endangering national security.”

The letter accused Hong Kong Watch of lobbying foreign countries, via its website, to impose sanctions or blockades, interfering in Hong Kong affairs and engaging in hostile activities that jeopardize the national security of the People’s Republic of China, and “seriously disrupting the formulation and implementation of laws and policies” by the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.

The letter demanded that Rogers, a British national, shut down the organization’s website within 72 hours or face formal charges of foreign collusion, which carries a penalty of anywhere from three years to life imprisonment, as well as monetary fines. “You are fully responsible for the acts and activities of ‘Hong Kong Watch,’” the letter explained, stating that the National Security Law applies worldwide.

A second letter signed by Hong Kong Commissioner of Police Annette Cheng warned Rogers and Hong Kong Watch “to keep confidential any information pertaining to the case and not to make any disclosure that may prejudice investigation or other law enforcement action by the Hong Kong Police Force.”

Rogers responded by saying,

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. 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.”

He added that his organization “will continue to be a voice for the people of Hong Kong and those brave political prisoners who have been jailed under this authoritarian regime.”

The Human Rights Watch website “appears to still be partially blocked in Hong Kong amid fears of rising Internet censorship,” according to a report by the Hong Kong Free Press. Since the Draconian legislation was enacted in July 2020, more than 50 civil society organizations and at least three independent news sites have been shut down.

Another U.K-based group that Rogers co-founded, the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, was sanctioned by China a year ago. In 2017, he was denied entry to Hong Kong.

Numerous British politicians have condemned Hong Kong’s threat against Rogers, including Sir Iain Duncan Smith, MP, who said, “…this attempt by China to arrest British citizens outside of China should remind us all that Totalitarian China is a threat to freedom everywhere.”

Once speech has been labeled “dangerous,” it’s a short journey to it being labeled “criminal” and “treasonous.”

History is replete with examples, but none so alarming as what has happened in Hong Kong. In 2019, when pro-democracy protesters marched for the protection of their long-held civil liberties and autonomy despite being ruled by China, Chinese authorities charged that the words and slogans protesters used to communicate their demands were violent and seditious and therefore a threat to national security.

Absurd? Of course, but no matter. After crushing the protests, the CCP passed the National Security Law in 2020 and have since leveraged it to convict and imprison citizens for any form of dissent.

This includes everything from carrying or shouting pro-democracy slogans to organizing Tiananmen Square commemorations to questioning and criticizing government policy in printed and online publications. In addition, lawyers have had their licenses revoked for representing those charged with National Security Law violations, and independent news publications have had their assets seized, their reporters and editors arrested, and their publishers tried, convicted, and jailed. Now they are threatening foreign citizens and human rights advocates for speaking up and speaking out for the Hong Kong people.

Hong Kong, once the freest, most prosperous place in Asia, is a sad cautionary tale. But anyone who thinks the United States, with its constitutionally protected and well-established traditions of free speech and the rights to assemble and protest, is somehow immune to what has happened in Hong Kong has simply not been paying attention.

Increasingly, the U.S. government and its law enforcement arms, enabled by their proxies in Big Tech and Big Media, have used national security as a pretext to silence dissent and opinions that don’t line up with the current approved orthodoxy.

Many cheered when Big Tech censored Trump supporters and those critiquing COVID policies. Few liberals paused when FBI director Christopher Wray reported that Americans with “extremist views” pose an elevated threat to national security or when the Department of Homeland Security defined potential domestic terrorists as those “motivated by a range of ideologies and galvanized by recent political and societal events in the United States,” which could include conspiracy theorists, COVID skeptics, and anyone who believes in the possibility of election fraud.

Many one-time champions of free speech have chosen to overlook or even cheer on the government’s willingness to attack and investigate based on certain political viewpoints and certain types of political dissent. They assume they have nothing to worry about since they are not a Trump supporter or they don’t think the election was stolen or they are willing to wear a mask and take a vaccine and an indefinite number of boosters as ordered.

But what happens when the current orthodoxy shifts?

The dragnet that the DOJ, the FBI, and DHS has cast is so loosely defined that it could be used to catch just about anyone with a pulse and a willingness to opine passionately…about the state of the country… or their disagreement with a certain policy…or their disappointment with their elected leaders…or any other slightly contentious topic.

It’s not even necessary to imagine the possibilities. One need only recall the Department of Justice announcing just a few months back that regular everyday parents would be investigated as domestic terrorists for objecting to school mask policies or their child being taught radical ideologies or their daughter being forced to share a bathroom with boys.

As President Harry S. Truman warned in a speech to Congress in 1950, “Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.”

It happened in Hong Kong. It can happen here. As such, it’s time for Americans to stand up for everyone’s rights to speak freely and dissent — even those with whom they vehemently disagree — because in so doing they will actually be protecting their own rights.

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