Beijing’s Crackdown on Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Hong Kong

Beijing’s Crackdown on Human Rights and the Rule of Law in Hong Kong

by Michael C. Davis
April 28, 2021

This essay examines how Beijing’s escalating crackdown on Hong Kong has systematically imposed authoritarian policies that undermine international human rights and the rule of law, abandoning China’s commitments both to the Hong Kong people and to the international community.



Confidence in the “one country, two systems” model China promised Hong Kong has slowly drained away in the years since the 1997 handover. In 2019, as “one country” seemed set to gobble up “two systems” under the weight of a proposed law to allow the extradition of accused from Hong Kong to the mainland, the people of Hong Kong staged one of the world’s largest ever protests to demand the autonomy, rule of law, and basic freedoms they were promised in the city’s Basic Law. In the face of government indifference and aggressive police tactics, these protests morphed into a confrontation that carried on for months throughout the second half of 2019. In 2020, Beijing responded with a total crackdown, imposing a national security law that undermined the core liberal institutions that have long sustained Hong Kong. To ensure absolute control, Beijing this year amended the Basic Law to impose new rules under which electoral committees can bar from the political process anyone deemed disloyal to the Chinese Communist Party regime. The new rules create an electoral model that profoundly violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights requirements applicable to Hong Kong.

  • International partners and organizations can play a more constructive role by focusing on meeting grassroot concerns. In this regard, recognition and support for autonomous territorial entities, such as Hong Kong, could be conditioned on adherence to relevant international and constitutional commitments to secure democratic representation, human rights, and the rule of law at the local level.
  • To encourage central government engagement on critical issues relating to human rights and the rule of law, diplomatic efforts ought to be multilateral, targeted, and involve clear messaging on the importance of the rule of law and international standards of human rights.
  • If Chinese and Hong Kong officials remain indifferent to both local and international concerns, immediate policies will need to focus on the exit and immigration concerns Hong Kong residents will face as they seek to escape the repressive conditions being imposed.

Michael C. Davis is a Global Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. (United States), an Affiliate Research Scholar in the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University (United States), and a Professor of Law and International Affairs at O.P. Jindal Global University (India). Long a public intellectual in Hong Kong, he was a professor in the Law Faculty at the University of Hong Kong until late 2016. His research focuses on a range of issues relating to human rights, the rule of law, and constitutionalism in emerging states. His most recent book, Making Hong Kong China: The Rollback of Human Rights and the Rule of Law (2020), is available from Columbia University Press.

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