On Thursday, May 23, 2024, the Italian Federation for Human Rights (FIDU) held a conference in the Italian Senate (Sala ISMA) titled “Hong Kong: Beijing’s Expanding Campaign to Crush Dissent Globally” in collaboration with the Global Committee for the Rule of Law “Marco Pannella” (GCRL) and hosted by Senator Giulio Terzi. 

The conference featured speakers from various organizations including the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, Safeguard Defenders and FIDU, and was moderated by Matteo Angioli (GCRL).

Senator Giulio Terzi, Chairman of the European Union Policies Committee of the Italian Senate, discussed the importance of addressing human rights abuses in Hong Kong. Beijing’s disregard for the international rule of law has become increasingly frequent, with significant geopolitical implications. Senator Terzi emphasized the obligation Italy and other EU member states have to take action on this issue. He referenced examples of Chinese disinformation and manipulation, including AI-generated videos promoting China-Russia ties and China’s attempt to capitalize on the recent earthquake in Taiwan for political gain. Senator Terzi also explained the issue from an economic dimension – both Italy and the EU have an enormous trade deficit with China. The senator argued that this economic relationship must become more balanced, reciprocal, and transparent through more serious and effective trade policy. He also described the work the Italian Parliament and Senate are doing to address the issue, including a resolution outlining guidelines for both Italy and the European Council’s stance on China. One major guideline commits the government to ensure that foreign interference in democratic processes of EU member states is properly detected and sanctioned. Senator Terzi concluded by mentioning three major issues present in Italy: Beijing’s use of secret police stations to control expatriate communities, abuse of the extradition system to suppress political opponents, and the persistence of Confucius Institutes in Italy despite being a threat to academic freedom and security.

Mark Clifford, President of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, opened with an important question: Hong Kong is a small, faraway city – why does it matter? He explained that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) suppression of Hong Kong in the past 5 years has been unprecedented. The once-free city of Hong Kong now contains 1,800 political prisoners, including nonviolent legislators, journalists, lawyers and professors. He spoke about the tragic imprisonment of Jimmy Lai, the head of a pro-democracy newspaper in Hong Kong. Despite the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed by China in 1984, the CCP has disregarded all democratic processes, suppressed dissent, and effectively taken control of Hong Kong’s political system. Clifford emphasized that if the CCP can brazenly violate human rights in Hong Kong with minimal consequences from the rest of the world, this encourages them to encroach on Taiwan. The CCP also has major influence in democratic societies through coercion and threats – for example, universities, newspapers and civil institutions have pulled away from Hong Kong activist groups out of fear of retribution from China. Dissidents living abroad in democratic countries are being harassed and threatened through the use of bounties and the arrest of family members in Hong Kong. Democratic governments must stand up to China and defend Hong Kong’s freedoms to dissuade Chinese aggression and authoritarianism. Finally, Clifford pointed out that Hong Kong’s reputation as a trusted financial and commercial center is no longer a reality. The city has increasingly become a hub for illicit financial transactions that fuel nefarious actors, including for the Russian war effort in Ukraine.

Mark Sabah, Director of the UK & EU branch of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong Foundation, spoke about the effects of the CCP’s transnational repression. For example, Hong Kong citizens living abroad have withdrawn from pro-democracy or dissident activities because both they and their families are being threatened or arrested. Sabah emphasized dictator Xi Jinping’s expansionist plan to use economic and cyber means to exercise control in democratic countries. China has invested in critical infrastructure around the world and is intertwined with the global economy, giving the CCP power and influence in almost every economic sector. Sabah also pointed out how democracy requires frequent elections, making it difficult for a country to develop and implement a long-term plan to counter China. Thus, our politicians must start working together to enforce policy against abusive CCP behavior. Sabah also drew a parallel between Chinese and Russian disinformation and suppression, but emphasized a key distinction: Russia was never an economic superpower like China. Thus, potential war in Taiwan is extremely concerning given China’s industrial and economic capabilities. Sabah called for a reduction in reliance on Chinese imports, increased defense against cyberattacks, and clear communication to citizens about the threat China poses to national security.

Antonio Stango, President of FIDU, spoke about FIDU’s recent work on authoritarian disinformation campaigns. Stango explained the CCP’s use of deceptive rhetoric to conceal abusive behavior. He pointed out that the phrase “collective West” used by the authoritarian regimes like the Kremlin, Beijing and Iran, is anti-geographical because it includes, among others, Japan, South Korea, and (previously) Hong Kong. The real contrast is not between an invented “Global South” and a “Collective West”, but between countries with freedom, democracy, rule of law, and countries under authoritarian regimes. Stango also mentioned that apart from soft power, Beijing has increasingly been using hard power by conducting military demonstrations around Taiwan and using economic leverage to directly control indebted foreign countries. China has also successfully gained influence in major international organizations such as the UN systems, INTERPOL, the WHO, and technological standardization committees — Stango referenced the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, where PRC’s diplomats use to interrupt any discussion of their human rights abuses. Lastly, Stango emphasized the need to raise awareness about China, combat disinformation, and use the EU’s economic power to counter China.

Laura Harth, Campaign Director for the human rights NGO Safeguard Defenders, outlined Italy’s response (or lack thereof) to China’s transnational repression. She first emphasized the need for continuous interest and support for Hong Kong, referencing activist Joshua Wong’s courageous address to the Italian Senate which called for Italian solidarity with Hong Kong. Harth argued that as the country with both G7 Presidency and a significant share of the EU economy, Italy’s role in countering the threat of China is significant – yet its power and influence has not been adequately exerted. For example, Italy’s official position calls on China to respect human rights and democracy in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, the government has failed to protect Hong Kong citizens living in Italy from transnational repression and extradition, unlike other countries such as Germany. Harth gave the example of a German resident with an extradition request from China who traveled to Italy for vacation. He was arrested, spending over a month in jail because of Italy’s lack of political protection. The government also failed to warn members of Italian parliament that they were vulnerable to a Chinese cyberattack in 2021, despite being informed by the FBI. Harth concluded by arguing that China poses a serious national security threat to Italy and inhibits democracy, calling for a better mechanism to coordinate government policies and amend Italy’s agreements with China.

Eleonora Mongelli, Vice-President of FIDU, spoke about how Beijing’s authoritarian campaign is connected to the Russian war in Ukraine. Over the past two years, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated how any dependence on an authoritarian state can undermine rule of law, democracy and stability. China is offering Russia crucial economic support after Western sanctions, and supporting the Russian invasion by amplifying selected pro-Kremlin disinformation narratives coming from Russian channels that have been sanctioned by the EU. Recently, the CCP has progressively expanded its economic, political and cultural influence across European business, politics, civil society and universities. Since the global financial crisis, China has strategically invested in critical EU infrastructure and become an essential supplier of raw materials crucial for European defense and technology. The risk of over-dependence on China is extremely concerning because of human rights and national security risks. The human rights abuses in Hong Kong represent a prime example of the destructive impact Beijing’s regime has on freedom and the rule of law. Mongelli emphasized how Chinese interference is multifaceted, targets diverse actors, and has global implications, thus making a comprehensive response essential. There must be a double approach, involving both international cooperation to impose sanctions, and raising awareness about China’s tactics on a national level.

Senator Giulio Terzi gave closing remarks, underscoring the importance and urgency of cooperative action against China. He called for an independent report on the many interacting facets of Chinese suppression, and the need for a clear plan of action to be presented to the European Institutions. Task forces in each member state can help the EU counter the complex challenge of Beijing’s suppressive campaign.