Hong Kong Security Crisis

Hong Kong, Asia

Hong Kong operated independently from China for many years, until it was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997 from what was then the British Empire. Once handed back to China, Hong Kong remained somewhat autonomous in its judiciary and legal system due to negotiations that led to the adoption of the constitutional principle “one country, two systems”. The principle ensured Hong Kong would remain a part of China while retaining its own administrative systems. However, these boundaries have been encroached upon from China ever since.

The Hong Kong protests, also known as the Anti-Extradition Movement, took place between March 2019 to May 2020. They symbolized the condemnation that many of Hong Kong’s citizens had towards China’s decision to pass the Extradition bill in April 2019. This bill ensured that criminal suspects could be extradited to mainland China, which caused havoc amongst civilians who viewed themselves as living in a Separate Autonomous Region. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of people turning towards public demonstrations, even long after the bill was withdrawn in September 2019. The situation worsened in October 2019, when a pro-Beijing lawmaker was stabbed in the street; a protestor was shot by police and another man was set on fire by anti-government protestors. The height of the protests saw up to 2 million people in attendance, making up a significant portion of Hong Kong’s population. A substantial portion of attendees were made up of citizens under the age of 25 years old, in fact, many of them were high school students.

In May 2020, China passed a broad-reaching security law for Hong Kong, essentially criminalizing any act of rebellion, which made it easier to punish protesters whilst simultaneously reducing Hong Kong’s autonomy. The breadth of the law allowed Beijing to select judges to hear national security cases in Hong Kong. Beijing’s power to establish a security force in Hong Kong erodes the pro-democracy movement and has caused international backlash. This has also instilled fear in tourists due to the significant violence on streets and surrounding airports. In response to police brutality, an independent inquiry began in 2019, though this failed to produce any results. This inquiry was also heavily turned down by Carrie Lam who acts as the Hong Kong Chief Executive. There was a significant call by protestors for the inquiry to take place and Lam’s opposition was perceived as Hong Kong turning a blind eye. Globally, external actors have shared their condemnation towards Hong Kong’s oppression. The United Kingdom suspended their extradition treaty with China, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson writing that, if security laws were pursued, “Britain would uphold our ties of history and friendship with the people of Hong Kong”. New Zealand has also suspended their extradition treaty with China. Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for protestors to be heard and the United States has condemned the violence of the protests.

In May 2022, John Lee was elected the new leader of Hong Kong in an uncontested vote with major support from Beijing. Lee was the previous security chief and is known to have zero-tolerance for peaceful protests as he supervised the implementation of the NSL.

International Law: The National Security Law is in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). The law threatens due process and much more. The right to a fair trial is defined under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Article 14 and Article 16 of the ICCPR provides the right to a fair trial. China is a signatory but has not yet ratified the ICCPR, though the ICCPR has been incorporated into the Hong Kong Bill of Rights Ordinance. Article 21 in the ICCPR has been replicated word for word in Article 17 of the Bill of Rights Ordinance.

Key Facts

1.7 to 2 million




COVID-19: 302,00 people living in “low-income households”

Population: Hong Kong: 7,496,981 people

Hong Kong Police Force: 27,648 disciplined officers and 4,200 civilian staff

Goal of protests: Some protesters have adopted the motto: “Five demands, not one less!” citing:

  1. For the protests not to be characterized as a “riot”
  2. Amnesty for arrested protesters
  3. An independent inquiry into alleged police brutality
  4. Implementation of complete universal suffrage
  5. The fifth demand, the withdrawal of the bill, has already been met

Key Policies/legislation:

2019 Extraditions Bill

The Extradition Bill proposed in 2019, allows Hong Kong to detain and transfer people wanted in countries and regions with which it has no formal extradition agreements, including Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. Commentators argue that the law would allow anyone in the city to be picked up and detained in mainland China. The main fear is that these judges must follow the regulations of the Communist Party. They also fear the new law would target both criminals and political protesters as well. The extradition plan applies to 37 crimes. That excludes political ones, but critics fear the legislation would essentially legalize the sort of abductions to mainland China that have taken place in Hong Kong in recent years.

2020 Security Law

Beijing imposed the national security law on the eve of July 1st, when it traditionally marks the 1997 handover from Britain. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam says mainland national security laws are long behind schedule for the territory. However, these laws impact all tourists to Hong Kong as all people who break the law can be prosecuted if they go to Hong Kong. This has caused difficulties for foreign universities, which are struggling to work out how to protect their students from stating and writing matters that may be used against them. Free speech is becoming a serious issue when coming up against

Chinese censorship. In fact, anyone who criticizes China and travels to Hong Kong is potentially at risk of arrest under the new law.

Much of the autonomy that came from the “one country, two systems” policy has now been disregarded. For instance, Hong Kong’s chief executive can appoint judges for national security cases and allows mainland courts to be involved in complex and serious cases. Media organizations that circulate essays or photographs may be viewed as terror offenses which may result in prosecution under a specific section that bans publicizing terrorist pursuits. Citizens lack clarity of what constitutes as an offence that would lead to them to being deported, which has instilled widespread fear. As stated by Amnesty International (2020), Hong Kong’s national security law is another example of a government using the concept of “national security” to repress political opposition, with significant risks for human rights defenders, critical media reporting and civil society at large.

Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23

Requires Hong Kong to enact laws to ban treason, secession, sedition and subversion. Theft of state secrets will be made an offense, while local political groups would be prohibited from establishing ties with foreign bodies.

The Key Actors

The Situation

Classification: Human Rights violation

Analyst’s suggestions:

  • Coming soon

Similar Crises:


Current Situation:

U.S. commitment to Taiwan is under scrutiny specially after the Afghanistan decision. Although the fall of Afghanistan may not have immediate consequences for the credibility of U.S. commitment to Taiwan, the U.S.’ future commitment to defending Taiwan is inherently interconnected with Taiwan’s own commitment to defending itself.


Hong Kong returns to Chinese control after 150 years of remaining under British control on July 1st at midnight. The ceremony was attended by British PM Tony Blair, Prince Charles, the Chinese President, and the U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Thousands of Hong Kong citizens protested this decision This began the start of Beijing encroaching upon Hong Kong, even as Hong Kong was supposed to maintain much of its independence.

China rules that its approval is required for any changes to Hong Kong’s election laws, giving China control to veto any pro-democracy movement.

Approximately 200,000 people take part in a demonstration protesting Beijing’s rule over Hong Kong’s election of the next chief executive.

Tens of thousands of people rally in support of full democracy against the wishes of Beijing.

Tens of thousands of protesters take part in Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy rally in a decade.

Pro-democracy demonstrators occupy the city centre for weeks in protest at the Chinese government’s decision to limit voters’ choices in the 2017 Hong Kong leadership election.

A new generation of pro-independence activists win seats in Legislative Council elections.

Demonstrations against moving base officials from mainland China to Hong Kong.

Secretary for Security John Lee declares measures to limit the scale of extraditable crimes, including increasing the threshold for extradition to felonies punishable by seven or more years of imprisonment.

Hundreds of thousands of citizens protest in opposition to the intended changes to Hong Kong laws that would permit accused offenders to be extradited to China to face trial. Many feel the rule would undercut the “one country, two systems” rule. This would mean exposing citizens to a murky legal system with less safeguards. An even greater demonstration against the proposal occurred the subsequent week.

Demonstrators took over the streets around Hong Kong’s Legco to stop policymakers from entering to debate the extradition bill. Rocks and metal barricades were thrown at police. Police Officers utilized tear gas to dissipate the masses which developed into a frequent procedure in the upcoming months.

Demonstrators broke into the legislature building and damaged it. This took place on a public holiday; where the walls were spray painted and portraits of politicians were defaced.

The legislature building remained closed for repairs for months afterwards.

Hong Kong sees anti-government and pro-democracy protests, involving violent clashes with police, against a proposal to allow extradition to mainland China.

A larger group of Chinese militarized police with armored vehicles gathering to hold drills in Shenzhen, the central city neighboring Hong Kong. The audience of the People’s Armed Police, whose role include riot control, triggers conjecture that they would intervene in Hong Kong’s demonstrations.

Hong Kong police implement a water cannon for the first time as collisions with protesters intensify. The water is often fortified with pepper spray to cause a stinging sensation and dyed with coloring to mark the clothing of those who joined demonstrations.

As the demonstrations continue, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam says the government will formally withdraw the extradition legislation. By then, the group’s demands have expanded to include an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality in opposition to protesters.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam implemented an anti-mask law, but confrontations escalated. This resulted in police brutality and misconduct allegations increasing dramatically.

A landslide win for a pro-democracy camp in the District Council election.

Demonstrators dominate and blockade numerous university sites for several days and contest police authorities outside. This included some of the most violent skirmishes in the months of rallies.

The pro-democracy opposition triumphs a sweeping victory in district council elections across the city of 7.5 million citizens. The results retain the protesters, but pro-Beijing parties remain in control of the legislature, where only half the members are appointed by popular vote.

Hong Kong riot police arrest approximately 400 people across Hong Kong, after a peaceful pro-democracy New Year’s Day march. The march was made up of tens of thousands, however it spiraled into turmoil. When brawls broke out near the HSBC branch in Wan Chai, police called off the march early, firing tear gas and water cannons to dissolve crowds. The total arrests since June are now approximately 7,000.

China passes a broad-reaching security law for Hong Kong, criminalizing acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign or external forces, and makes it easier to punish protesters while reducing Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The United States President orders his administration to eliminate the special treatment provided to Hong Kong, alongside threatening to impose sanctions. These sanctions are intent on “eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy, directly or indirectly”.

China’s National People’s Congress approves a decision to build national security laws for Hong Kong. Chinese and Hong Kong chiefs say the demonstrations established an urgent need for such laws. Pro-democracy activists and many legal professionals fear a further destruction of “one-country, two systems.” The regulations are expected to be enacted by the end of the summer.

A Hong Kong media tycoon (Jimmy Lai Chee-ying), to be prosecuted for partaking in gathering thousands of people in Victoria Park to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Democracy Movement.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison working on a plan to provide diplomatic haven to Hong Kong residents after China’s “incredibly concerning” decision to push ahead with new national security law.

UK FCO (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) to introduce new visa tier for Hong Kong residents. This allows Hong Kong residents to apply for British citizenship through close family members, with no number cap on applications. Estimates show that more than 1,000,000 Hong Kong residents could move to Britain within the next 5 years.

An undisclosed number of public-school teachers are under investigation for the alleged use of “inappropriate and biased teaching materials”, after 2 teachers were disqualified in 2020.

Biden administration cited the National Security Law measures as undermining the rule of law.

Two editors and two writers for the largest pro-democracy newspaper were arrested and the Hong Kong police forced the newspaper to cease publication, while also freezing the organizations assets.

Tong Ying-Kit, a 24-year-old waiter was the first to be found guilty of terrorism and inciting secession under the national security law (NSL). Tong is the first Protester tried under Hong Kong’s national security law.

Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the pro-democracy group that organized some of Hong Kong’s biggest protests, announced that it was disbanding in the wake of a sweeping national security law.

Due to the NSL, the Hong Kong leadership has not effectively planned for the home prices and land shortage.

Canadian companies have refused legitimate requests from Hong Kongers who want to withdraw money from their pension funds and move abroad.

Pro-establishment lawmakers questioned the value of the mooted global PR campaign, calling on Hong Kong’s Audit Commission to review the $5.7m in public expenditure.

The group behind the annual Tiananmen Square memorial vigil in Hong Kong said Sunday it will not cooperate with police conducting a national security investigation into the group’s activities, calling it an abuse of power.

Nine Hong Kong pro-democracy activists were sentenced to between six and 10 months in prison on Wednesday for taking part in an unauthorised assembly at last year’s vigil for the victims of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on protesters.

As Hong Kong’s crackdown on dissent has intensified over the past year, the authorities have singled out myriad acts and items that they say could threaten national security. Mass protests. Informal elections. Chanting slogans.

Officials have suggested that imprisoned pro-democracy activists are using sweets and other items to “solicit followers” behind bars.

Schools and universities revising curriculumto add now-required teachings tying patriotism to loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.

Speech therapists arrested for producing a children’s book that portrays local police as wolves preying on activists depicted as sheep who are then arrested at sea while trying to flee to Taiwan.

Residents calling police hotlines to report “disloyal” neighbors and work colleagues. Students and teachers likewise urged to inform on each other.

Hong Kong tycoons influence was dramatically reduced to that of pipsqueak in last Sunday’s first poll under the radically transformed voting system imposed on Hong Kong by central government authorities.

A senior Hong Kong government official has accused the US of helping to foment the violent protests of 2019, saying the unrest dealt a severe blow to the economy which was now “back on track” under the Beijing-enacted national security law.

Britain’s defence minister called on China on Thursday to find a peaceful way to settle its dispute with Taiwan, warning that Chinese incursions into the Taiwanese air defence zone were dangerous and could spark conflict.

Amnesty International said it would close its two offices in Hong Kong this year, becoming the latest non-governmental organization to cease its operations amid a crackdown on political dissent in the city.

A strong corporate earnings season has provided some much-needed support to investors in recent weeks as companies showed resilience in the face of supply snarls, surging commodity and wage costs, and spiking COVIC cases.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Friday spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping and discussed several issues, including action to address the climate crisis, global trade and Afghanistan.

Thousands of university students in Hong Kong were forced to take courses on the NSL while being broadcasted by the China Central Television. The courses teach the dangers of breaking the law and a breach is punishable by life in prison. The international community condemns the law as it infringes on the students academic freedom and suppresses pro-democratic protests which are often initiated by university students.

Since the NSL was imposed, 154 people have been imprisoned. A Hong Kong court sentenced a peaceful protester to 5 years and 9 months in prison for shouting slogans that advocated for Hong Kong’s independence.

Electoral reforms introduced by Beijing only allow candidates to run that pass the “patriots only” vetting process. As a consequence, the majority of residents plan to boycott the legislative “selection” approaching.

Stand News, one of the last remaining pro-democracy media outlets in Hong Kong, was shut down during a police raid. The police arrested members on the senior staff and forze the company’s assets due to “seditious publication”. The Human Rights Offices at the UN and in  Germany were quick to condemn the actions of the authorities that suddenly stripped the civil society to speak freely.

Hong Kong aligned with China’s strict Covid Zero strategy resulting in a decrease of the population and increase on its dependency to mainland China. As the Covid pandemic endures, citizens and international companies begin to relocate allowing mainland Chinese influence to infiltrate where they left.

Voter turnout was a record low in the recent Legislative Council election at 30.20% with over 2% of ballots being blank or invalid. Most seats were won by the Pro-Beijing candidates which has invited criticism as some claim that the elections were rigged’

The European Parliament condemns China for continuing to impede on Hong Kong’s freedom and fight for democracy. The Parliament urges Hong Kong to release all political prisoners and drop all charges against peaceful protesters. It stresses how the NSL is hindering the relationship between China and the EU as it is undermining cooperation.

Activists call for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics due to the country’s treatment toward the people of Hong Kong and ethnic minorities (i.e., Uighurs and Tibetans). The activists demand that athletes do not attend the games to fight against China’s human rights abuses.

Japanese lawmakers passed a resolution that calls for monitoring the human rights situations within China through international cooperation and providing relief measures for those that are harmed. The resolution initially had stronger rhetoric utilizing terms such as “condemnation” and “human rights abuses” but selected for more ambiguous wording in fear of diplomatic backlash. 

Journalists have been fleeing Hong Kong due to their persecution amidst the crackdown on media freedom from China. The International Freedom for Journalists calls on governments to support and provide refuge for the journalists to continue their work.

Hong Kong Watch, a UK based organization that seeks to promote human rights and rule of law, was unable to be accessed through certain internet networks within the city. This raised concern regarding internet censorship under the Chinese national security law which is criticized as undermining the “one country, two systems” framework.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson previously announced a visa scheme that offers qualifying Hong Kong citizens a path to British citizenship. The residents must live in the UK for 5 years before they can apply for citizenship. Since the announcement, 103,900 Hong Kong citizens have applied for the program to seek refuge within the UK.

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet reached an agreement with China for a visit to the region in May. The occasion is due to multiple accusations against China regarding human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The update does not indicate whether unregulated access was granted which was negotiated in the early stages of planning the visit. 

Hong Kong Watch, a UK based organization, stated it was threatened by the Hong Kong Police Force’s National Security Department with criminal sanctions. They were accused of threatening Chinese national security by “lobbying foreign countries to impose sanctions” and participating in “other hostile activities”. The police confirmed this is why their website was blocked in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong national security police arrested six people during court hearings claiming they were participating in seditious acts. The police stated they were “causing nuisance” in the courtroom as they clapped during the hearings to show support for victims of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing.

A total of 10,946 arrests have been made in connection to pro-democracy protests. As of late February, 2,079 cases have been handled by the courts with approximately 83% of those completed. The courts have convicted over 1,158 people, bound roughly 300 and placed 6 under “care or protection order”. The sentences given vary from HK$100 to HK$41,000, a few days in jail to 12 years in jail, sent to detention and rehabilitation centers, community service up to 240 hours, and compensations fees up to HK$230,000. 

Google shut down John Lee’s, the anticipated leader of Hong Kong, Youtube campaign channel in alliance with sanctions the US imposed in 2020 in response to him curbing freedom in the city. Lee stated that the sanctions are unreasonable and “convinced [me] that I’m doing the right thing”.

John Lee was elected as the leader of Hong Kong in an uncontested vote with the support of Beijing. As previous security chief, Lee has a record of zero-tolerance for peaceful protest as he oversaw the implementation of the NSL.

A study conducted by the Hong Kong Church Renewal Movement discovered that over one-third of churches are inclined to alter their content in church due to the political atmosphere. In 2019, churches were major pro-democracy activists but now they begin to censor themselves in light of recent crackdowns. 

John Lee is planning to visit Beijing since becoming Chief Executive of Hong Kong. The trip will include a meeting with the Vice-Premier of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) Han Zheng to discuss restructuring the government and security. The visit to the capital will also include a meeting with President Xi Jinping to be formally appointed.

This year marks the third consecutive year that police have patrolled Hong Kong’s Victoria Park where the annual commemoration for Tiananmen Square is held. Authorities state the shutdown over the years is to disallow the spread of Covid-19 while critics respond that the virus is a cover to infringe on their right to assemble.

Under the NSL, 47 pro-democracy figures were charged with “conspiracy to subversion” for organizing polling booths to select a pro-democracy candidate in the previous legislative election. The pre-trial hearings denied most of the defendants bail and although they were held in an open court, there were major reporting restrictions which offered a lack of transparency. As the case was sent to trial earlier this past week, all but one of the defendants have been committed to the higher court where the maximum sentence for subversion is life in prison.

China announced the new Hong Kong government officials in the upcoming administration that will govern alongside John Lee who is to take office on July 1. The newly appointed includes four senior officials currently under sanctions due to their role with the NSL.

China is changing the school curriculum in Hong Kong to foster patriotism amongst the younger generations. The textbooks are being rewritten claiming that Hong Kong was never a colony but rather an occupied territory and the struggle for democracy did not exist as the Tiananmen Square massacre is now known as an “incident”. In addition, the new curriculum requires national security education within a minimum of 15 subjects ranging from physics to accounting.  

Lee stated, the one country, two systems principle is the “institutional safeguard” of Hong Kong and must be maintained. Security remains a top priority for the new administration ever since the 2019 democratic upheaval. Lee also plans to revitalize Hong Kong’s business attraction and address the housing crisis.

US Consul General Hanscom Smith condemned China for threatening the growth of Hong Kong after 1997. Beijing criticized Smith for his political “grandstanding show” and “hypocrisy” when criticizing the central government for changing policies harming Hong Kong.

The UN finished questioning Hong Kong government officials under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Questions were asked regarding the National Security Law and surveillance technology which reviewed empty responses and reassurance of “there are…no causes for concern”.

The US President extended the national emergency under the International Emergency Economic Powers Act due to China’s actions in Hong Kong which threatens US national security, foreign policy, and economy. This grants him unchecked powers to impose sanctions on external entities, a move that China “resolutely oppose[s]”.

In recent months, two British supreme court judges resigned from Hong Kong’s top court, the court of appeals, due to their judicial independence being undermined via China’s systemic attack. However, six British judges along with two judges from Canada and Australia refused to step down believing their continued participation in the court is “in the interest of the people of Hong Kong”. These remaining judges have faced backlash for “legitimizing Beijing’s draconian rule”.

The UN Human Rights Committee published its main concerns and recommendations regarding the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (a treaty that protects civil and political rights of individuals). The committee expressed deep concern with the vague NSL and definition of national security. The committee has placed pressure on Hong Kong to repeal the law. 

People born on or after July 1, 1997 (the date Britain handed Hong Kong over to China) who are 18+ will be eligible to independently apply for a British visa this upcoming Fall. This new eligibility can assist over 11,700 people in Hong Kong.

Sonny Au, a career police officer, was appointed as the new secretary general of the local committee overseeing national security policy in Hong Kong.

A five-day trial has been set to occur this September regarding Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun and four other defendants who face charges for “failing to properly register” a fund to aid anti-government protesters. The defendants were arrested under the NSL and their fund disbanded.

Hong Kong lifted reporting restrictions on pre-trial proceedings involving the pro-democracy activists arrested in the February 2021 raid. This is the first time reporting will be accepted for pre-trial hearings within Hong Kong, a move activist support towards open justice.

Jimmy Lai, an entrepreneur and pro-democracy activist, will plead not guilty in the national security case with no jury and may face up to life in prison. Lai owns a clothing retail, Next Digital, a media company, and Apple Daily, a newspaper. Apple Daily was shut down in a police raid due to colluding with “foreign forces” advocating for China to be sanctioned for Hong Kong repression. 

A High Court judge ruled that police have the right to search two phones in connection to Jimmy Lai’s case. Lai’s legal team seeks to file an appeal as it violates the principle of “press freedom and journalistic confidentiality.”

More on this Crisis

Opportunities in the Crisis Index

If you have relevant knowledge of a particular region and are interested in being a Regional Crisis Adviser or Senior Correspondent (Crisis Index), please email our Crisis Index Coordinator at catherine.kreider@theowp.org.

Interested in contributing to the Crisis Index?

We have a team of knowledgeable advisors and senior correspondents responsible for updating and maintaining our Crisis Index pages. For more information on the roles and responsibilities, click the button below.
Click Here