China (Includes Hong Kong, Macau, and Tibet) – Hong Kong
Read A Section: Hong Kong
Hong Kong is a special administrative region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law of the SAR specify that the SAR enjoys a high degree of autonomy under the “one country, two systems” framework, except in matters of defense and foreign affairs. Throughout the year, however, domestic and international observers continued to express concerns about central PRC government encroachment on the SAR’s autonomy. In November district council elections, prodemocracy candidates won control of 17 out of 18 councils in elections widely regarded as free and fair, although the government barred one opposition figure’s candidacy. The turnout, 71 percent of all registered voters, was a record for Hong Kong. In March 2017 the 1,194-member Chief Executive Election Committee, dominated by proestablishment electors, selected Carrie Lam to be the SAR’s chief executive. In 2016 Hong Kong residents elected the 70 representatives who compose the SAR’s Legislative Council. Voters directly elected 40 representatives, while limited-franchise constituencies elected the remaining 30.
The Hong Kong police force maintains internal security and reports to the SAR’s Security Bureau. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
From June to year’s end, Hong Kong experienced frequent protests, with some exceeding more than one million participants. Most protesters were peaceful, but some engaged in violence and vandalism. The protests began as a movement against the government’s introduction of legislation that would have allowed the extradition of criminal suspects to any jurisdiction, including mainland China, but subsequently evolved to encompass broader concerns.
Significant human rights issues included: police brutality against protesters and persons in custody; arbitrary arrest; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; and restrictions on political participation.
The government took steps to prosecute and punish officials who committed human rights abuses but resisted widespread calls for a special inquiry into alleged police brutality that occurred during the demonstrations. The government continued to rely on the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) to review allegations against the police.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. An independent press, an effective judiciary, and an unfettered internet combined to permit freedom of expression, including for the press, on most matters. During the year, however, some SAR and central government actions restricted or sought to restrict the right to express or report on dissenting political views, particularly support for Hong Kong independence.
Freedom of Expression: There were some legal restrictions on the ability of individuals to criticize the government publicly without reprisal. Police arrested several individuals for damaging the national flag, which is illegal. For example, in May police arrested a proindependence activist for damaging the Chinese national flag during a protest against the controversial extradition bill. In October, media reported police asked Facebook to remove user posts about police handling of protests. Facebook reportedly declined to do so.
Requirements for electoral candidacy and for taking the oath of office also limited free speech in the political arena. For example, the Electoral Affairs Commission requires all Legislative Council candidates to sign a pledge stating the SAR is an “inalienable part” of China in order to run for office. The commission disqualified one candidate, democracy activist Joshua Wong, from running in the November district council election. The government determined that Wong could not “possibly comply with the requirements of the relevant electoral laws, since advocating or promoting ‘self-determination’ is contrary to the content of the declaration” candidates are required to sign.
In 2017 the government disqualified six legislators-elect from taking office because they took their oaths in ways that did not conform to a 2016 NPCSC interpretation of the Basic Law to demonstrate “sincerity” and “solemnity” when taking an oath.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. An April Hong Kong Journalists Association poll found, however, that 81 percent of journalists said press freedom in the SAR had worsened since 2018.
Violence and Harassment: In September unknown persons threw firebombs at the home of Jimmy Lai, owner of the prodemocracy Apple Daily newspaper. Also in September, four unknown assailants attacked an Apple Daily reporter who was covering protests. In November protesters smashed windows and vandalized the offices of China’s state-controlled Xinhua News Agency. Several journalists alleged that police detained, assaulted, or harassed them while covering protests. In October the Foreign Correspondent’s Club condemned the arrest of a photojournalist who was covering a protest. Police reportedly ordered her and other journalists to remove their gas masks despite previous government assurances that the mask ban did not apply to those using masks to perform their professional duties.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Reports of media self-censorship and suspected content control continued. The April Hong Kong Journalists Association survey showed that one in five journalists surveyed said their superiors had pressured them to reduce reporting about Hong Kong independence. Many media outlets, bookstores, and publishers were owned by companies with business interests on the mainland or by companies directly controlled by the Chinese central government, a situation that led to claims they were vulnerable to self-censorship.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government allowed most public gatherings to proceed, but government actions, including prosecutions of activists and refusals to grant approval for some assemblies, infringed on the right of peaceful protest.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
Reports that the Immigration Department refused entry to a small number of persons traveling to the SAR for political reasons continued. In May Immigration Department authorities denied entry to former Philippine supreme court justice Conchita Carpio-Morales, who previously accused Chinese president Xi Jinping of crimes against humanity, according to media reports. Activists and other observers contended that refusals, usually of persons holding, or suspected of holding, views critical of the Chinese central government, were made at the behest of mainland authorities.
Foreign Travel: Most residents easily obtained travel documents from the SAR government, although Chinese central government authorities in the past did not permit some human rights activists, student protesters, and prodemocracy legislators to visit the mainland. There were reports of mainland security officials harassing and questioning Hong Kong residents suspected of participating in protests when they traveled to the mainland. In August central government officials detained an employee of the United Kingdom’s consulate in Hong Kong while he was returning from the mainland to his home in Hong Kong. He was released after more than two weeks in detention and later told media that mainland authorities tortured him.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: Activists indicated that persons seeking refugee status faced discrimination and were the frequent target of generalizations by some political parties and media organizations.
The government cooperated with the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for granting asylum or refugee status, but the SAR government has established a system for providing limited protection to persons who would be subject to torture or other abuses in their home country.
The SAR government used the term “nonrefoulement claim” to refer to a claim for protection against deportation. Persons subject to deportation could file a nonrefoulement claim if they either arrived in the SAR without proper authorization or had overstayed the terms of their entry. Filing such a claim typically resulted in a period of detention followed by release on recognizance. Activists and refugee rights groups expressed concerns about the quality of adjudications and the very low rate of approved claims, less than 1 percent. Denied claimants may appeal to the Torture Claims Appeal Board. The government did not publish the board’s decisions, a practice which the Hong Kong Bar Association previously noted created concerns about the consistency and transparency of decisions. Persons whose claims were pending were required to appear periodically before the Immigration Department. An NGO reported the government’s process for evaluating claims, which did not allow claimants to legally work in the SAR, made some refugees vulnerable to trafficking.
Employment: “Nonrefoulement claimants” have no right to work in the SAR while their claims are under review, and they must rely on social welfare stipends and charities. The SAR government, however, frequently granted exceptions to this rule for persons granted nondeportation status and awaiting UNHCR resettlement.
Access to Basic Services: Persons who made “nonrefoulement” claims were eligible to receive publicly funded legal assistance, including translation services, as well as small living subsidies. The children of such claimants could attend SAR public schools.
Temporary Protection: Persons whose claims for “nonrefoulement” are substantiated do not obtain permanent resident status in the SAR. Instead the SAR government refers them to UNHCR for possible recognition as refugees and resettlement in a third country. Some such persons have waited years in the SAR before being resettled.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The Basic Law limits the ability of residents to change their government. Hong Kong voters do not enjoy universal suffrage in elections for the chief executive or equal suffrage in Legislative Council elections. Article 45 of the Basic Law establishes as the “ultimate aim” direct election of the chief executive through “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”
The chief executive is elected by an election committee (CEEC) of approximately 1,200 members (1,194 members in 2017). The election committee consists of the 70 members of the Legislative Council and a mix of professional, business, and trade elites.
Voters directly elect 40 of the Legislative Council’s 70 seats by secret ballot. Thirty-five seats are designated as “geographic constituencies” (GCs) and 35 as “functional constituencies” (FCs). All 35 GCs are directly elected by all voters in a geographic area. Thirty FC seats are selected by a set of voters representing various economic and social sectors, most of whom are probusiness and generally supportive of the Chinese central government. In 2016 the constituencies that elected these 30 FC Legislative Council seats consisted of 239,724 registered individual and institutional voters, of whom approximately 172,820 voted, according to the SAR’s Election Affairs Office’s statistics. The remaining five FC seats must be filled by district councilors (the so-called district council sector, known as “super seats,”) were directly elected by the approximately five million registered voters not represented in another FC, and therefore represented larger constituencies than any other seats in the Legislative Council.
Under the Basic Law, only the SAR government, not members of the legislature, may introduce bills that affect public expenditure, the political structure, or government policy.
In October Chief Executive Carrie Lam invoked the ERO, which grants the chief executive power to “make any regulations whatsoever” in times of “emergency or public danger,” to ban face masks. In November a court ruled that Lam’s use of the ERO was unconstitutional.
The SAR sends 36 deputies to China’s National People’s Congress (legislature, NPC) and had approximately 200 delegates in the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference–bodies that operate under the direction of the Chinese Communist Party and do not exercise legislative independence. The approval of the chief executive, two-thirds of the Legislative Council, and two-thirds of the SAR’s delegates to the NPC are required to place an amendment to the Basic Law on the agenda of the NPC, which has the sole power to amend the Basic Law.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government generally implemented the law effectively. Although the SAR continued to be relatively uncorrupt, there were isolated reports of government corruption.
Financial Disclosure: The SAR requires the most senior civil service and elected officials to declare their financial investments annually and senior working-level officials to do so biennially. Policy bureaus may impose additional reporting requirements for positions seen as having a greater risk of conflict of interest. The Civil Service Bureau monitors and verifies disclosures, which are available to the public. There are criminal and administrative sanctions for noncompliance.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were somewhat cooperative and responsive to their views. Prominent human rights activists and organizations critical of the central government also operated in the SAR.
Government Human Rights Bodies: There is an Office of the Ombudsman and an Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC). The government recruits commissioners to represent both offices through a professional search committee, which solicits applications and vets candidates. Commissioners were independent in their operations. Both organizations operated without interference from the SAR government and published critical findings in their areas of responsibility. NGOs pointed out that the EOC had limited ability to conduct investigations.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers to form and join independent unions without previous authorization or excessive requirements and to conduct legal strikes, but it does not protect the right to collective bargaining or obligate employers to bargain. Trade unions claimed the lack of collective bargaining rights and divisions in the labor movement weakened workers’ leverage in negotiations. The law explicitly prohibits civil servants from bargaining collectively.
The law prohibits firing an employee for striking and voids any section of an employment contract that punishes a worker for striking. The commissioner of police has broad authority to control and direct public gatherings, including strikes, in the interest of national security or public safety.
According to the law, an employer cannot fire, penalize, or discriminate against an employee who exercises his or her union rights and cannot prevent or deter the employee from exercising such rights. Penalties for violations of laws protecting union and related worker rights included fines as well as legal damages paid to workers, and penalties were sufficient to deter violations. Dismissed employees, however, had difficulty proving antiunion discrimination. In August, according to media reports, Cathay Pacific Airways (Cathay) warned employees that they may be fired if they joined a city-wide general strike. Cathay’s cabin crew union head Rebecca Sy told the press in August that Cathay Dragon, a Cathay subsidiary, fired her after company officials showed her printouts of proprotest movement postings on her private Facebook account.
b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor
The law does not prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor, nor do laws specifically criminalize forced labor. Instead, the SAR uses its Employment and Theft Ordinances to prosecute labor violations and related offenses. Penalties for these offenses were not sufficient to deter violations.
NGOs expressed concerns some migrant workers, especially domestic workers in private homes, faced high levels of indebtedness assumed as part of the recruitment process, creating a risk they could fall victim to debt bondage. Domestic workers in Hong Kong were mostly female and mainly came from the Philippines, Indonesia, and other Southeast Asian countries. The SAR allows for the collection of maximum placement fees of 10 percent of the first month’s wages, but some recruitment firms required large up-front fees in the country of origin that workers struggled to repay. Some locally licensed employment agencies were suspected of colluding with agencies overseas to profit from debt schemes, and some local agencies illegally confiscated the passports and employment contracts of domestic workers and withheld them until they repaid the debt.
SAR authorities stated they encouraged aggrieved workers to file complaints and make use of government conciliation services as well as actively pursued reports of any labor violations.
Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. Regulations prohibit employment of children younger than 15 in any industrial establishment. The law prohibits overtime in industrial establishments with employment in dangerous trades for persons younger than 18. Children between 13 and 14 may work in certain nonindustrial establishments, subject to conditions aimed at ensuring a minimum of nine years of education and protection for their safety, health, and welfare.
The Labor Department effectively enforced these laws and regularly inspected workplaces to enforce compliance with the regulations. Penalties for violations of child labor laws include fines and legal damages and were sufficient to deter violations.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law and regulations prohibit employment discrimination based on race or ethnicity, disability, family status (marital status or pregnancy), or sex. The law stipulates employers must prove that proficiency in a particular language is a justifiable job requirement if they reject a candidate on those grounds. Regulations do not prohibit employment discrimination on the grounds of color, religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV or other communicable disease status, or social status.
The government generally enforced these laws and regulations. In cases in which employment discrimination occurred, the SAR’s courts had broad powers to levy penalties on those who violated these laws and regulations.
Human rights activists and local scholars continued to raise concerns about job prospects for minority students, who were more likely to hold low-paying, low-skilled jobs and earn below-average wages. Experts assessed that a lack of Chinese-language skills was the greatest barrier to employment.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
The statutory minimum wage was below the poverty line for an average-sized household. There were many press reports regarding poor conditions faced by and underpayment of wages to domestic workers.
There is no law concerning working hours, paid weekly rest, rest breaks, or compulsory overtime for most employees. Several labor groups reported that employers expected extremely long hours, and the groups called for legislation to address that concern.
Laws exist to provide for health and safety of workers in the workplace. Workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. Employers are required to report any injuries sustained by their employees in work-related accidents.
The government effectively enforced the law, and the Labor Tribunal adjudicated disputes involving nonpayment or underpayment of wages and wrongful dismissal. The number of labor inspectors was sufficient to deter violations except in the cases of nonpayment or underpayment of wages to and working conditions of domestic workers. Penalties for violations of the minimum wage or occupational safety and health violations include fines, payments of damages, and worker’s compensation payments. These penalties were sufficient to deter violations.
The Occupational Safety and Health Branch of the Labor Department is responsible for safety and health promotion, identification of unsafe conditions, enforcement of safety management legislation, and policy formulation and implementation; it enforced occupational safety and health laws effectively.