China’s decision to foist national security legislation on Hong Kong has activists in the territory looking nervously at Beijing’s record of using the legal system to silence political advocacy and dissent.
Human rights organisations and legal experts said China’s state security laws allowed the party to crush opposition because the definitions of crimes such as subversion were so vague.
“The people of Hong Kong should prepare to cope with the varieties of arbitrary detention that have been inflicted on compatriots elsewhere in China who have tried to exercise freedoms of expression,” wrote Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University, in a blog post.
China’s security laws were updated after Xi Jinping became president in 2012. Mr Xi said the changes were necessary to ward off serious threats to Communist party rule from both within and outside China.
But human rights campaigners disagree.
“The government has been abusing the laws,” said Yaqiu Wang, a researcher at Human Rights Watch. “They target Chinese dissidents or Uighur activists with bogus charges. They use separatism or subversion to criminalise freedom of speech.”
The dissenting voices snuffed out by China’s state security laws include Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, who was charged with inciting subversion in 2009. He died of liver cancer in 2017 while still in police custody.
The Financial Times has profiled six prisoners in jail or detained on national security grounds in the People’s Republic of China.
Rights lawyer Yu Wensheng is part of a network of Chinese legal advocates targeted in a crackdown in the summer of 2015. Hundreds were detained and dozens jailed. He was detained and released without charge.
In 2018, Mr Yu was again taken away by police shortly after he called for an amendment to China’s constitution to weaken Communist party rule.
Mr Yu was tried in secret last month, without representation from a lawyer of his choice, according to his wife Xu Yan. His sentence has not been announced.
Ilham Tohti, a former scholar at Minzu university in Beijing, was jailed for life in 2014 for separatism.
He had written essays advocating gradual changes to political representation for the mostly Muslim Uighur minority, a Turkic speaking group who live in Xinjiang in north-west China.
In the years since Mr Tohti was sentenced, China has escalated its security campaign in Xinjiang, detained more than 1m Uighurs and other Muslims in “re-education” camps and jailed hundreds of thousands, many for national security crimes.
Li Ming-che in 2017 became the first Taiwan citizen to be charged with state security crimes in the People’s Republic of China since the law was revised in 2015.
Mr Li was sentenced to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” by a court in Hunan province, in a case that worsened already frosty ties between Beijing and Taipei.
He was tried in what rights groups labelled a “show trial” with the hearing and his admission of guilt broadcast online. His wife, who lives in Taiwan, refused to recognise the court’s authority.
Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig
Two Canadian citizens — Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat turned analyst for International Crisis Group, and Michael Spavor, who ran cultural exchanges with North Korea — were detained by Chinese authorities in December 2018.
China said the two were suspected of “engaging in activities that endanger China’s state security”, which was later refined to “spying” for Mr Kovrig and “stealing state secrets” for Mr Spavor. Both men have denied the accusations.
Beijing has made no secret that the cases are connected to the arrest of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, by Canadian authorities at the request of US authorities.
Mr Kovrig had been splitting his time between Beijing and Hong Kong and was picked up during a visit to the Chinese capital.
The men have been held in solitary confinement in detention centres with limited consular access. Ms Meng was granted bail and has been living under surveillance in one of her multimillion-dollar Vancouver homes.
Huang Qi, a rights activist and founder of the 64 Tianwang Human Rights Centre, was jailed in July 2019 to 12 years in prison for “intentionally leaking state secrets to foreign entities”. It was his third prison sentence, having previously been jailed for “inciting subversion”.
Mr Huang had been one of a cohort of citizen journalists who reported extensively on human rights abuses in China throughout the 2000s, including reporting on the deadly Wenchuan earthquake in 2008.
In April, Huang’s mother Pu Wenqing wrote an open letter asking to be allowed to visit her son because it was feared his health was deteriorating. Her request was denied by prison officials who cited Covid-19 restrictions, she said.