China had been steadily tightening its grip on Hong Kong residents long before the months-long mass protests left the territory in crisis, an Amnesty International report said.
Authorities have been eroding residents’ rights in recent years, with growing numbers of local Hong Kong activists, journalists and others censored, prosecuted and harassed, it said.
The Amnesty report highlights how increasing restrictions on the right to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly have culminated in the current street protests pitting residents against police that have increasingly turned violent.
The protests started in June as a backlash against a now-scrapped piece of legislation that would have allowed criminal defendants to be transferred from Hong Kong’s independent legal system to mainland China.
But anger over economic inequality in the territory, perceptions of government inaction and shock over police use of force have mounted.
The protests have now morphed into a full-blown rebuke of Beijing’s increasing control over the city and rekindled a years-long demand for direct election of the city’s leaders.
“The steady erosion of rights and freedoms in Hong Kong began long before the announcement of the Extradition Bill,” said Joshua Rosenzweig, head of Amnesty’s East Asia office.
“The Chinese authorities, in tandem with the Hong Kong leadership, have for years been chipping away at the special status that Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy regarding the protection of human rights.”
Since the Umbrella Movement ended in 2014, more than 100 people have been prosecuted for peaceful activism, the report said. That pro-democracy movement saw demonstrators take to Hong Kong’s streets for two months.
Authorities have since increasingly misused laws and regulations in the name of national security to harass and prosecute individuals, according to the report, based on interviews with academics, journalists, students and others.
One journalist said he received weekly calls from Beijing officials pressuring him to play down criticism of President Xi Jinping and issues such as Taiwanese independence. NGO workers said they had been repeatedly harassed by Hong Kong and Beijing officials and forced to self-censor in order to protect their funding.
Amnesty backed calls for an investigation into heavy-handed police tactics against current protesters that has included firing live rounds. Police said they have acted as necessary in extreme circumstances. But the violence has led to a breakdown in trust between residents and police.