Hong Kong has been dropped from a prominent index of the world’s freest economies, underscoring growing concerns about Beijing’s tightening grip on the Asian financial center after it introduced a national security law last year.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative American think tank, announced the announcement because the area was expected to end a marathon bail for 47 pro-democracy politicians in a case that critics say demonstrates the rapid decline of civil liberties in the city.
The Heritage Foundation has also dropped China’s Special Autonomous Region of Macau, a casino hub and former Portuguese colony.
The foundation has been aligned with the administration of former US President Donald Trump in recent years.
“Undoubtedly, both Hong Kong and Macau enjoy economic policies that, in many ways, give their citizens more economic freedom than the average Chinese citizen,” said the Heritage Foundation. “But developments in recent years have unequivocally shown that that policy is ultimately driven from Beijing.”
Beijing last year imposed national security law on Hong Kong in response to anti-government protests that engulfed the city in 2019.
The measures are part of a restriction on civil and political freedoms guaranteed by the city for 50 years following the handover of the UK to China in 1997. Authorities target anyone who has been identified in politics, education and the media as is considered disloyal to the Chinese government.
The Hong Kong government has long been proud of studies showing that its economy is one of the most liberal in the world, with the city marketing itself as an international business port given its low tax rates and open harbor.
The Heritage Foundation last year replaced Hong Kong at the top of its Index of Economic Freedom with Singapore, dropping it from a position it had held for 25 years, but still taking the area second in the rankings.
The case against the 47 pro-democracy lawmakers and activists is seen as a test of whether the city’s legal system can withstand the pressure from Beijing.
Authorities charged the group with undermining, claiming they wanted to overthrow the government by casting an unofficial primary vote to select candidates to run for election to the city’s legislature. Undermining is punishable by life imprisonment under national security law.
The bail hearings, chaired by a judge appointed to oversee national security matters, entered their fourth day on Thursday.
The hearings often lasted until late in the evening, including a session that lasted until 3am before the suspects were dragged to court the next day. At least one defendant collapsed in court and six others were sent to hospital for treatment.
“I don’t believe our courts have had to deal with so many disputed bail cases at once in recent times,” said Simon Young, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. “What has happened is very unsatisfactory in terms of both the treatment of the defendants and the efficiency of the trial.”
Some defendants went through multiple trials and were forced to shuffle between courtrooms.
The defendants’ lawyers said on Tuesday that their clients had not bathed for three days, forcing the judge to postpone the hearing to allow them to wash.
Hundreds of supporters line up every day trying to follow the procedure in person. Many held placards and chanted banned political slogans, leading to prosecution under security law.
A 50-year-old bank manager, who stood in line on Tuesday and took leave of absence to review the proceedings, told the The Washington City Times he thought the group was being prosecuted for no reason.
[The prosecution] is ridiculous, ”he said. “We want to see how Hong Kong’s legal system stands up under national security law.”