Just how bad is the political repression in Hong Kong?

A comparative look at political prisoners around the world indicates the answer is: PRETTY BAD

Just about everyone except the Chinese Communist Party and its allies agrees that political repression in Hong Kong has become much worse in the past two years. But how does it compare to elsewhere in the world?

One indicator — the number of political prisoners — places Hong Kong, with currently 657, in a group of countries with hundreds of political prisoners: Belarus (827), Cuba (683), Iran (578), Russia (420), Venezuela (252) and Nicaragua (155). Bad company, to be sure; very authoritarian company; all highly politically repressive societies.

The number of political prisoners in a given country is of course just one indicator of political repression. There are many others, including restrictions and attacks on civil society and the press, bans on demonstrations, and impunity for rights abusers in power, just to mention some of the more important.

According to these indicators as well, Hong Kong has rapidly become more politically repressive. In just the past year, 53 civil society organizations have closed due to political pressure, including many of Hong Kong’s most prominent. The largest-circulation newspaper in the city, Apple Daily, was also forced to close, with many of its top executives facing draconian “national security” charges in the courts, and the public broadcaster, Radio Television Hong Kong, has been effectively “harmonized”, to use a CCP euphemism for “brought under control”. All demonstrations (“public gatherings” in regime parlance) have been banned since March 28, 2020, and both before and since then, those who have tried to gather have been immediately attacked by the police. Government officials and police officers have complete impunity; there are no effective mechanisms to hold them accountable and none has been over two years of well-documented systematic human rights abuses. Indeed, Hong Kong is the norm for politically repressive regimes: rarely if ever does one find a society with many political prisoners but few signs of political repression in other areas.

There is no universally agreed definition of “political prisoner”. For that reason, some human rights organizations either avoid the term or employ it sparingly. But for those who have lived in authoritarian societies, it is not hard to come up with a general definition: It includes those detained or imprisoned…
…primarily for their expression of political opinion, including for taking part in demonstrations, or for their political beliefs
…for being members of the organized political opposition
…on explicitly political charges, such as secession, subversion, collusion with foreign forces and terrorism (which in many authoritarian countries is misapplied to a wide range of activities)
…for engaging in activities regarded as lawful in a rights-respecting societies but perceived as a political threat by the regime in power, such as practice of one’s religion or culture
…on the basis of their identity, whether ethnic, religious or other, again because it is perceived as a political threat by the regime in power.

(Viasna Human Rights Center of Belarus has developed a very useful and comprehensive guide to defining political prisoners.)

Many of these political prisoners are charged with recognizable crimes —for example, one favored by the regime in Hong Kong is “unlawful assembly” , a nonviolent offense for which 216 of Hong Kong’s 657 political prisoners have been incarcerated— and for this reason, some consider the category of “political prisoner” too blurry, as it involves making the determination that the charges facing an individual are primarily politically motivated even while the charge itself may be considered legitimate under genuine rule of law. But use of a judicial system for purposes which may in other respects be legitimate in order to persecute perceived political enemies is a typical feature of most of the authoritarian regimes which have many political prisoners.

In looking at the list above, a useful distinction can be made between dynamic, volatile and quickly changing situations on the one hand and static and chronic situations on the other. The types can be grouped in three categories: 1) those countries which have had a substantial number of political prisoners for a long time going back decades; 2) those countries where the number of political prisoners has increased dramatically within the past decade; and 3) those countries where the number of political prisoners has increased dramatically within the past two or three years. In category 1 would fall North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Israel/Palestine, and China (minus the Uighurs). In category 2, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, and Bahrain, which all have a long history of large numbers of political prisoners but due to the Arab Spring and the rise of Erdogan in Turkey, the numbers have climbed further still. In category 3, the case of the Uighurs in China, Burma, Belarus and Hong Kong. Cuba and Nicaragua might also fit here. Like the countries in category 2, they have for a long time had a large number of political prisoners, but the number has increased due to crackdowns on recent protests and, in the case of Nicaragua, unfair elections.

Besides Hong Kong, Israel is the only other country on the list with a track record of liberalism and respect for basic human rights. Indeed, Israel is an anomaly: a liberal democracy within its own borders, an apartheid regime in flagrant violation of international law in the occupied Palestinian territories. Unlike Israel, Hong Kong has never been a democracy, not even close, but until recently it had many other characteristics of a typical liberal society, including freedom of the press, an independent civil society, freedom of assembly, and general respect by authorities for the rule of law.

In this respect, there’s no other society on the list of countries that have a large number most political prisoners which has fallen so far and so rapidly as Hong Kong. Most others that routinely imprison people for political reasons are long-time authoritarian regimes which may fluctuate between bad and really bad. There is no other recently liberal society on the list. Prior to the Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong arguably had no or very few political prisoners. From the time of the Umbrella Movement in 2014 until protests broke out in 2019, it had several dozen political prisoners and politically motivated prosecutions. But since 2019, the number has climbed exponentially.

A note on the data: In 10 of the 18 cases listed in the table above, the numbers can be reckoned quite accurately. This is usually because of two factors: 1) there’s an organization that has dedicated itself to monitoring and counting political prisoners, and/or 2) in the country in question, while authoritarian, there is still enough space for some flow of information. The groups in question— Syria Network for Human Rights, Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association (Palestine), Viasna Human Rights Center (Belarus), Iran Prison Atlas, Prisoners Defenders (Cuba), Memorial Human Rights Center (Russia), Foro Penal (Venezuela), and Mecanismo de Reconocimiento de Presos Politicos (Nicaragua) — are doing heroic work.

Other societies are like black boxes (Xinjiang in China, North Korea, Eritrea) with little information emerging and no human rights groups — or any others for that matter — allowed to operate independently, or they have no group dedicated specifically to monitoring political prisoners (Egypt, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Bahrain, Azerbaijan) though they do have other human rights organizations. These tend to be the ones with the highest suspected number of political prisoners, but estimates are rough.

The above list is far from exhaustive. Many other countries have significant numbers of political prisoners, including Saudi Arabia and other dictatorships in the Middle East and North Africa; Vietnam and other dictatorships in Southeastern Asia; Turkmenistan and other dictatorships in Central Asia, as well as several semi-democratic and fully democratic countries (think: Guantánamo). The number of political prisoners in Ethiopia is swiftly increasing as it cracks down on civil society during its war with Tigrayan rebels.

A note on how the number of political prisoners is calculated in Hong Kong: Political prisoners are defined as those imprisoned for their involvement in the massive protests of 2019–2020, opposition political figures, and those charged under the so-called “national security law” imposed by the Communist Party in June 2020. These prisoners include both those convicted and sentenced (509) and those on remand awaiting completion of trial (148). These numbers have been confirmed and itemized (see the full list here), and thus represent the lowest total possible. There are most likely others who have yet to be confirmed. Because it is very difficult to monitor all releases of prisoners, the number of 657 represents all those who have been imprisoned since June 2019 for political reasons as well as all those currently on remand. There may be some who have been released from prison, but their number would make up a small portion of the 509 so far imprisoned. Some human rights organizations are ambivalent about including those convicted of violent offenses under the rubric of “political prisoner”. (For this reason, Amnesty International famously refused to count Nelson Mandela as a “prisoner of conscience” because he advocated armed rebellion against the apartheid regime of South Africa.) Of Hong Kong’s 657 political prisoners, 139 have been convicted of violent offenses in relation to protests during the past two years. Those offenses include riot, assaulting police, common assault, inflicting grievous bodily harm, wounding, false imprisonment and fighting in a public place. (See the full list at the bottom of this page.)

All data as of November 3, 2021. Some situations such as in Belarus, Burma and Hong Kong are fast-moving, and numbers can change daily.