Asia Fact Check Lab: Is the US overstating political arrests in Hong Kong?
On Jan. 26, the White House said in a statement that more than 1,200 political prisoners have been locked up in Hong Kong, and another 10,000 people have been arrested on other charges in connection with anti-government protests.
Chinese officials responded by accusing the U.S. of being a “scaremonger” by exaggerating the number of people detained in Hong Kong for political activities. China says only about 230 locals have been arrested since the city’s 2020 National Security Law (NSL) was adopted.
Asia Fact Check Lab (AFCL) found the accusation that the U.S. is exaggerating the number of arrests to be false, as the number is in accordance with documents the Hong Kong government itself has released. Also, the number of people China claims have been arrested is misleading because the figure only included arrests connected to “endangering national security” made after the NSL was adopted and not the large number of cases tied to political protests before its passage.
On Jan. 26, President Biden signed a memorandum extending the eligibility of Hong Kong citizens to stay in the U.S. under the Deferred Enforced Departure for an additional two years. The DED is an executive humanitarian relief mechanism that allows select foreign nationals from regions undergoing political oppression or natural disasters to temporarily reside in the U.S.
Citing difficult political conditions in Hong Kong, the memo states that there are more than 1,200 political prisoners in the city. Over 10,000 people have been arrested for other charges in connection to anti-government protests.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry Commissioner’s Office in Hong Kong criticized the White House announcement, saying that it “aims to provide a safe haven for anti-China forces who left Hong Kong.”
The ministry spokesperson said the U.S. is a “sheer scaremonger” for exaggerating the number of people who have been arrested in Hong Kong. The spokesperson said that only about 230 people have been arrested on suspicion of endangering national security, and only about 30 were convicted “after fair trials” under the NSL, which went into effect in June 2020.
AFCL found that the difference in the numbers presented by the two governments reflects the types of offenses they include in their calculations. The U.S. includes people involved in protests who were arrested for violations outside of the NSL’s scope. China on the other hand only counts people arrested under the NSL.
The NSL was enacted in June 2020, more than a year after large-scale protests broke out in response to the introduction of an extradition bill that could enable mainland China to extradite Hong Kong suspects for trial. The law gave Hong Kong authorities more power to prosecute critics in the name of national security.
But before it went into effect, many protesters had already been detained on a host of other charges, such as illegal assembly, rioting, incitement and damaging public property.
The Hong Kong Free Press, which calls itself an independent news outlet, cited data from the Security Bureau of Hong Kong to report that as of Jan. 20 the number of people in the city who had been arrested for activities endangering national security since the legislation was enacted was 243.
The outlet reported in October 2022 that over 3,000 people, including 517 minors, have been prosecuted “for offenses linked to the 2019 anti-extradition bill protests.” It also said that by the end of August,10,279 people had been apprehended by police.
The Hong Kong government corroborated the information in a news article in Xinhua, China’s state media agency. It reported 10,242 people had been arrested by Hong Kong authorities since mid-2019, when large-scale protests against the anti-extraction bill broke out.
As for convicted political prisoners, a database of prisoners sentenced for pro-democratic activities maintained by the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a non-profit group, showed a total of 1,337 at the end of January.
The U.S. claim that more than 10,000 people were arrested during Hong Kong’s anti-government protests is backed by official Chinese sources. It is false to say that the U.S. is exaggerating the number.
China’s claim that only “around 230 people” were arrested after the enactment of NSL is also true. But that framing sidesteps the fact that the vast majority of arrests connected with anti-government activity occurred months before the security law was adopted.
Asia Fact Check Lab (AFCL) is a new branch of RFA, established to counter disinformation in today’s complex media environment. Our journalists publish both daily and special reports that aim to sharpen and deepen our readers’ understanding of public issues.