Almost from the moment he took over as president of the Hong Kong Bar Association this year, British lawyer Paul Harris has been a prominent man in Beijing.
Officials attacked him as “anti-Chinese” because he criticized the national security law imposed on Hong Kong last year, and lawyers said broke through the legal firewall previously separating the judicial system of the territory from the land.
“In my opinion, the Hong Kong National Security Act of 2020 is not in line with the rule of law,” said Harris, who has worked in Hong Kong since the 1990s and speaks Cantonese. wrote when taking office.
After just a year as chairman, Harris – who declined to speak to the Financial Times for this article – decided not to run for a second term. That has raised fears of HKBA’s independence as it prepares for next month’s election to replace him, lawyers who spoke to the Financial Times say.
Problems in the HKBA are common throughout Hong Kong civil society. Once a noisy mix of interest groups, unions and more sober professional bodies, more than 50 organizations have announced their closure since the introduction of the National Security Act in June 2020.
Many are replacing bodies with strong state ties, while those left behind are gradually being silenced. The loss of civil society groups threatens to further undermine the tradition of free speech and the rule of law that supports Hong Kong as an international business hub, critics say.
In his latest six-monthly report on Hong Kong, the UK said “the independence of the judiciary is becoming more and more balanced” and noted the pressure on Harris.
Amnesty International Human Rights Group, announcing closing their offices in the city in October, he said: “Hong Kong has long been an ideal regional base for international civil society organizations, but the recent targeting of local human rights groups and trade unions signals an intensifying government campaign to free the city from all different voices.”
Launched in response to anti-government protests in the city in 2019. calculation pro-Beijing loyalists described it as “deradicalization”. It has expanded from seemingly apolitical professional organizations such as the Hong Kong Institute of Chartered Public Accountants, whose regulatory powers to license the profession have been handed over to a government body, to the Hong Kong Professional Teachers Union, which closed in September after helping teachers who were accused of professional misconduct in connection with the protests.
The day after the HKPTU, which was founded in 1973 and had more than 90,000 members, voted to dissolve, a new organization called the Hong Kong Education Workers’ Union emerged. Its members are closely associated with the Pro-Beijing Federation of Education Workers of Hong Kong, a separate union.
“We need some new faces. . . pretend to be independent voices after many civil society organizations disbanded, ”said Mung Siu-tat, a former leader of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, a working group that had more than 90 branches before disbanding in September. Kim Wong, president of EWU, however, insisted the group was independent.
“With these [existing] when organizations fall apart, there is now room for new groups to work more closely with the authorities, ”said Lau Siu-kai, vice president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies, a semi-official think tank of mainland China.
Civil society leaders, some linked to the pro-democracy movement, said official pressure on their groups followed a plan: government or pro-Beijing figures or a Hong Kong state newspaper publicly attacked the organization, suggesting they would violate national security law; mostly anonymous “middlemen” then step in and threaten civil society leaders and their families.
“The mediators actually interviewed me three times in one month,” said Mung, who left the city. “They kept asking me about HKCTU’s source of income and foreign funding.”
In an electronic exchange reviewed by the FT, one such intermediary first revealed his knowledge of the whereabouts of a civil society member’s family member before warning that their security and the person’s career were at stake if they did not leave their position in the organization.
In such a climate, next month’s elections for the HKBA, which represents more than 1,500 lawyers, promise to be particularly tense.
One of the candidates running for president of the association is Victor Dawes, claim people familiar with the matter. A senior adviser, Dawes has never publicly commented on social or political issues. Dawes did not respond to a question about his intention to run.
Some in the legal community believe his candidacy would be a safer bet than a more open figure to ensure the continuity of the association. “Perception is the most important thing [thing]”Said Alan Leong, chairman between 2001 and 2003.
The Hong Kong Law Firm, which represents 12,000 lawyers and is more than 114 years old, also came under fire during its election, and state media warn it could lose the power to discipline and hire new lawyers if “anti-Chinese” candidates are elected.
Carrie Lam, the executive director of Hong Kong, recently warned the organization not to choose candidates who are considered to be opponents of the government.
The new president of the organization, Chan Chak-ming, has been removed concern for his independence. “We should not criticize anything. We are a professional body that gives professional advice, ”he said. “As a law firm, we cannot influence government policy.”
A member of the HKBA familiar with the organization’s election process said government attacks would “deter many, many people from doing their job” and curb public debate in the city.
“The opportunity to speak with confidence that there will be no consequences for you personally or for the body as a whole has diminished,” the person said.